Abu Alaa and I left Asmida at one p.m., exactly the time he had told me. I couldn’t believe I was going through the gate a last time in Ali Baba’s Mercury. I concentrated on surroundings I would never see again. Abu Alaa saw two women near the gate, waiting probably for the bus to Basra. He stopped, leered at them in his rearview mirror, winked at me, and backed up. He rolled down his window, “Come on, let’s go,” he said.
The women declined, acting disgusted by his offer.
I tuned him out for a while, focusing instead on the checkpoint and machine‑gun nest built up with sandbags, the railroad track, and the archway at the end of the driveway. We turned onto the road to Zobair and passed the checkpoints, the power station, the slag heaps in the desert, the old cars, the blast furnaces, and the antennas.
Before the turn-off we passed the ruins of the ancient mud-brick structure. “Was that once a caravansary?” I asked.
“Caravansary? I don’t know,” he said, shrugging it off.
But I was really interested. “A khan?” I tried again, using a synonym that he might recognize.
“Khan! Yes, khan, I think,” he said, but showed not interest at all.
I suppose it was predictable. He was a secret police creature, not interested in an old, derelict market.
As we approached Basra, he offered a choice: take the two-lane road following the Tigris, through Qurna and Amara; or the highway along the Euphrates, through Nasiriyah and Babylon, actually Hilla. I told him Babylon. He remembered a conversation we’d had weeks earlier: I’d told him he had to take me to visit his home in Babylon.
He seemed pleased as he turned towards Babylon. The highway was excellent, like an interstate through wide open desert, even marked with large blue and white highway signs identical in design to those along American interstates. However, horrible wrecks haunted the road, obliterating a sense of efficient, trouble-free driving. Soon after the on-ramp, we pass the remains of a black Mercedes 600 sedan, blood-covered broken windshields, partially covered with sand, demolished against an overpass abutment on a perfectly straight highway. Had the driver fallen asleep, was it suicide, was he forced off the road, had the driver crashed after being hit by strafing fire from an attack helicopter? Farther north a dump truck loaded with beer was overturned, and men dressed like Abu Mahmoud gathered unbroken bottles from the sand.
Abu Alaa drove between sixty and eighty miles per hour. “Go. Babylon before dark.” he explained. We chatted and smoked his cigarettes, my first since the Sumer cigarettes I had the days after being taken from the hotel in Kuwait City months before. I studied the civilian buses and convoys of military vehicles moving south. A military cargo plane took off from the desert a dozen or so miles southwest of the highway. Near Nasiriyah we passed a thirty-foot high berm that went on for miles. I watched the odometer from the corner of my eye: the fortification extended at least ten miles. I wondered if the designers intended it to stop enemy tanks or to prevent eyes like mine from seeing what lay beyond.
We chatted about the highway itself—one of the English words he’d wanted to learn at Asmida. “How old is the highway? How is the highway in Boston?” He still expected to be my houseguest someday. The rapport between us usually felt not unlike that between student and teacher, though it was not clear who was what. Maybe both of us assumed the two roles simultaneously.
Around 4 p.m. he’d turned on the radio to hear the news. After thirty seconds, his jaw dropped as he turned to me. In an astonished voice, “el raees now releases all of the hostages immediately. Al-hamdullilah.” We shook hands and smoked a cigarette.
We were more than half the way between Basra and Baghdad. I’d never see Asmida again. Yet I felt farther from freedom than ever: zawaj talaq was in Baghdad waiting for me. The thought of seeing her troubled me. Abu Alaa was smiling. “Al-hamdullilah,” he repeated. He knew of my confusion, but he also knew that I was headed home, as were all the guys he’d guarded for so long. He would soon be reassigned to other duty, maybe something more exciting, I imagined.
“You should be thankful. This is another Thanksgiving Day for you,” he said.
“Not yet, you know that, Abu Alaa,” I said.
At dusk we followed a marriage procession into Hilla. It was strange to think of a wedding now, here, on a dusty shortcut between the highway and downtown Hilla. Cars decorated with streamers, drivers blowing car horns; a young woman in a white dress and her man in a black tuxedo together stood up through the sunroof of a Mercedes, waving. Dust kicked up by the cars painting the date palms brown. This dirt road changed into busy streets in the center of the city. Abu Alaa asked if it was all right to stop for five minutes to chat with friends. “Let’s stop for a few days,” I said. He laughed.
Abu Alaa parked alongside a curb where six or seven men were gathered. They gathered by his door immediately, laughing, shaking hands, kissing his cheeks. Abu Alaa introduced me simply as Mr. Will. We all shook hands, a warm and matter-of-fact meeting. Maybe they thought I was a friendly technician, or they’d heard from him about his assignment at Asmida. He may have similarly introduced Reiner and Jurgen a week and a half earlier, though I didn’t think so.
“You want tea,” he asked after a quarter hour that I’d stood on the street corner watching as he talked and laughed with his friends. As we walked across the street to a busy teahouse, I inhaled deeply the delicious smells of spices and meats roasting on fires. Families crowded the sidewalks and laughed, raising their voices with a range of emotions. Car horns sounded cheerful and songs from passing car radios brought me out of the robotic existence I’d too long endured. The constant background roar of industry and its accompanying acrid smells were finally gone.
. “This . . . istikhan (teahouse) good,” Abu Alaa said. Dozens of white light bulbs hung on several wires strung along the ceiling, like Christmas decorations. We drank a glass of hot syrupy tea, standing, leaning against a blue and white-tiled wall that reflected the lights in this busy istikhan where a dozen men conversed in loud excited voices. Spoons clinked inside tea glasses. Dishes clattered onto the counters. The sweaty face of the tea man standing in front of an aromatic wood fire built inside an earthen stove, the stained white skullcap, the coarse red hands holding a large brass kettle with its aroma of tea. . . all seemed as ancient as Babylon.
When we returned to the car, I heard someone call “Mr. Will.” I looked at Abu Alaa and turned around. One of Abu Alaa’s friends came over with a bunch of grapes.
“Please take,” he said to me.
I wished I’d had some token to return to him to reciprocate the welcome he gave me, with his simple gift that glimmered of common ground between us.
When we got into the car, another man entered and sat in the back seat. He sat in the middle, so Abu Alaa and I could both half turn to make eye contact with him as we talked. I wished it had been daylight. There was much to see, and both men seemed eager to explain the sights. At one point, Abu Alaa pointed to an area maybe half a mile off the road. Dozens of mercury vapor lights illuminated dark boxy structures, but I couldn’t see them clearly. “Babil,” he said, and his way of saying Nebuchadnezzar.
A road sign announced Baghdad layless than 50 miles ahead. We may have passed farmland between the rivers, but it was too dark to tell. The moon was waning again. Abu Alaa turned on the radio, found some music, and turned the volume up; he and his friend sang along. When the song was over, he said, “Iraqi rock. You like Iraqi rock?”
I wondered about the next hour, meeting Circelia. “Please, Abu Alaa. Drive me to the Jordan border. You know I don’t want to do this, to see her.” He laughed, but I couldn’t. Inside Baghdad, he seemed to drive the alleys more than avenues, but along the avenues I saw jewelry shops, windows with fashion displays, people standing in front of restaurants.
I was trying hard to imagine an evening on this town when we turned into the parking lot of the Al-Mansour Melia. I reflected on the eons that’d passed since we left this hotel in August, a lifetime that had brought deaths—real and imaginary—of friends and selves and relationships. Four months had spawned friendships with fellow hostages and Iraqis like Umm Kul and Mr. Ali. And a sense of victory.
An odd couple, Abu Alaa and I entered the hotel lobby. He led me to the reception desk, seeming unsure where to go. As he talked with the clerk, I felt like an accompanied minor on an outing with my guardian, exercising no control of my goings and comings. At one point, two men beside us approached another desk clerk. One of them held a large video camera with CNN printed on the side. I glanced at the face of the man holding the camera. As I studied him, thinking only that he looked like one of my college roommates, his eyes brightened. He straightened up, and mumbling something, poked his partner in the ribs with his elbow, and raised the camera to his left shoulder, squinting into the eyepiece. The man beside the camera operator became aggressive. He stepped toward me. “Are you an American?” I guess the T-shirt with the map of the coast of Maine and a whale offered a clue.
In the split second I hesitated before answering, Abu Alaa grabbed my arm and half dragging me to the elevator, said, “Run!” I did, leaving the TV crew without a word.
“Seventh floor,” he said to the operator. These were my last minutes with Abu Alaa. The car ride from Basra had felt like a celebration, a return from a campaign that’d turned out well for both of us, and the news report we’d heard halfway had capped my personal joy: everyone I’d left behind at Asmida was also to be released soon; the lives of the workers there—Abu Mahmoud, Ali, Umm Kul and all the others—were to be returned to normal soon, or at least relieved of caring for us captives.
The elevator opened to the same hallway on the seventh floor I’d left in August. Unfamiliar guards sat at an improvised desk, a low round table strewn with papers, coffee cups, telephone cord, and overflowing ashtrays. Beside these guards sat two American women.
“Which one are you?” one of them asked me. Just like that, “which one.” I felt myself choking. I wanted to be back in my cell or the mesbah or the car with Abu Alaa. Anywhere but here. I didn’t want to give her my name. She didn’t belong. She couldn’t possibly be the one I reported to. The past months had been my battle and the battles of the men I was with. She had no doubt had her own battles. And I could be happy she’d survived her ordeal, but that, I felt, gave her no right to be here sitting at this table with these guards asking me who I was. I interpreted her question as an attempt to assume control over me that the guards previously had held. I could have killed some guards and had chosen not to. Similarly, no guards had brutalized me or any of the others I knew. We had negotiated a feigned mutual respect. I hadn’t figured out all these feelings right then; all I knew at that moment her question and attitude felt all wrong.
This was like one of the nightmares I’d had weeks before where I went over the back fence at Asmida, running across the desert, evading detection by patrols, stealing a bellam, navigating by night past Umm Qasr and Bubiyan Island, getting into the Gulf, approaching what I knew to be safety in the form of a sailing dhow, and then getting targeted by that MiG 23 of so many months before carrying missiles. I’d awakened from my sleep as I dived into the Gulf while a glossy white missile streaked toward me.
“Will. Will Van Dorp,” I mumbled. This was like surrender, like running into a fence or swimming into a net. The woman who’d stayed silent until then turned and yelled down a hallway behind her, “Quick, tell Circelia her husband is here.” I should have made up a name, or refused to answer at all and just found a way out now that el raees had decided we could go. But it was too late.
Abu Alaa, still standing beside me, saw my face and said, “Be good. You’re still in Iraq.” Then he turned and disappeared down the backstairs.
December 6: What led to Iraq’s decision to release all hostages… read here.