“Her letter showed so much respect for el raees Saddam Hussein,” Abu Alaa said one morning, as he began talking about the el raees releasing me soon in gratitude for her gesture—her wonderful letter printed in the Baghdad newspapers and read on the radio.
“What letter? Whose letter?” I really thought he was joking or had gone insane.
“Your wife, from Africa. You never told me your wife was from Africa,” he said.
“She’s not my wife now. We’re divorced, or should be,” I protested.
“Maalesh (no problem),” Abu Alaa responded. “It doesn’t matter if she is your wife or your ex-wife. It was a great letter. El raees likes it.”
“B-but what exactly did it say?”
“I’m not sure. I just heard by phone from Baghdad that your wife wrote a very respectful letter to el raees. But we can listen to it on the radio news.”
I went with him and the other guard, Saad, who also thanked me for my wife’s letter.
“She’s not my wife,” I said, watching Abu Alaa smirk. “To me it does matter a lot that you know she’s not my wife. She’s not. We stopped being husband and wife maybe five years ago. She is not my wife,” I insisted.
Abu Alaa changed the subject. “You teach me English,” he asked. “You every night teach me English.” I could understand him, but he spoke not nearly so well as Kamal.
“Sure,” I said. “I agree to do this if you teach me Arabic in exchange.”
“Good. We start now.”
The how’s of teaching he left to me, so I decided to introduce him to seven or eight words of English he wanted to know in exchange for seven or eight words of Arabic I wanted, nightly. When we started, he picked up an Iraqi military magazine that had pictures of tanks, missiles, and rifles—words he wanted to know immediately. When we got to what I told him was a “rifle,” he told me the Arabic term was bandokhiya. This stunned me: it sounded not coincidentally like bandoki, the word with the same meaning in Lingala, a language of Congo. I knew that Swahili, another official language of Congo, borrowed words from Arabic, but here was the first one I’d come across in Lingala. This also scared me: was it possible my life had come full circle now? A word in the first non-European language I studied was the same as that word in this latest language. And the word was what might just kill me. Did coming full circle mean that my end was near, that I’d soon be shot like the people in Kolwezi? Or was I just off-balance, interpreting a coincidence as if it were an omen that it wasn’t, expecting symmetry where there would be none?
In truth, the fact of her letter wasn’t so strange. I’d written to the powers-that-be myself: To el raees Saddam I wrote respectfully that holding us could not help his cause. To President Bush I wrote that sitting down to talk with Saddam would improve his status. After all, American presidents spoke with Soviet presidents at the height of the Cold War. How could this be different?
I’d written to my children, repeating over and over that I missed them. But most of my writing went to Diana, weekly letters as well as the journals. I hoped she already had the first part, from Olivier. Iraq was getting colder: this might be my winter journal. When this ordeal had started, it’d been summer by her, and I imagined Lost Pond, mosquitoes, lady’s slippers, and Diana’s flower garden. Now snow might cover the frozen ground. I wrote the first journal page at my window sill:
“I’m losing the sensual pleasure of the warm sun on my skin. I hope you’ve found solace in something while you’re enduring being hostage of this situation.
It pains me to write that for a week or so I’ve had dreams that you’ve fallen out of love. In one, you’ve built a large piano in the cabin. It’s so large that there’s no room there for me anymore. If these are dreams prompted by months of being out of touch with you, then it’s just another torture, insidious sowing of doubts that may bear cruel fruit later. I shudder to write this but do so as a way of staying faithful to the idea of being frank.
The moon is getting full again; I imagine this means I’m safe for a while once more, the most fruitful time for an attack coming on the new moon. I’m doodling a lot those days, drawing dozens of variations on a same cartoon face: a surprised look on the full moon. I don’t know why I draw this or why the face on the moon is surprised.”
Umm Kul came to talk the first thing the morning after Abu Alaa told me about the letter. She too wanted to thank me for the good letter, but she seemed confused about who was who in my life: she knew that the woman in the picture by my bed was not African, as news reports about the letter described her. I explained again that the letter was written by a zawaj talaq, one of the words I’d learned from Abu Alaa. She seemed not to understand; maybe my Arabic was too limited to explain complex issues like ex-wives.
She changed the subject and pulled out four postcards I guessed she’d bought from a market in Basra. She pointed to one that showed the shrine of the tomb of the Shi’ite prophet Ali; the other three cards depicted boats: boys poling bellams, a Gulf dhow under sail, and small tugboats with barges under a date palm grove. She’d picked up on my not-so-subtle interest in boats, though she didn’t know that talking about ships and boats—like watching clouds—was about fantasy, about escape and survival. Two powerful vehicles—boats and postcards—if only the cards could travel and bring response and if only those hulls could bear me away, I thought. Or maybe she did know, and she did understand my predicament because it was her own too: she needed escape from the facts of her life as an Iraqi.
Messages came in other forms. One night someone shook me out of sleep. I opened my eyes. My watch said 1:30. Colonel Syphr stood beside my bed. I sat up. He was smiling. Is this the execution? was my first thought, but I didn’t reach for the pipe. Someone about to kill me wouldn’t have that expression and might not even want to awaken me before the dispatch to a final sleep.
Instead, he drew a piece of paper out of his pocket. “I have a message for you,” he said grinning, with his usual disgusting sophistication. I saw the Japanese in the other room behind him, as they hadn’t gone to sleep yet. I understood any curiosity they’d have about his going into my “cell,” as I called it.
The paper was a telegram from Circelia, a cryptic note of less than twenty-five words dated almost four full weeks earlier: “Will Jr rushed hospital 10/21. Think can save right eye. Surgery tomorrow. I’m losing mind. Circelia.”
The rest of the night I couldn’t sleep. Questions swirled through my head. Why was he rushed to the hospital? Why was the right eye in danger? Did this imply that the left eye was gone? What had surgery accomplished? Why was Circelia losing her mind? Was this real, or was the whole thing an exercise in misinformation she had generated to try to get me released on humanitarian grounds? Was this a bizarre Iraqi ploy? What could I do with this disturbing information except be tortured by my impotence?
A few days later, Saad entered the mangeriyah for a routine breakfast: the hostages crowded at one end of the long table, and the guards at the other end. The open space in the middle of the table got larger and larger after the French and Jack left. I again sucked in my cheeks whenever I wasn’t talking to Reiner in order to appear more gaunt than I was in case the guards would notice. But Saad had a box and an unusual smile. Then he pulled out a letter and called Reiner’s name. Then another for Nigel. When he was done, I had seven, seven! fantastic bundles of paper, from Diana, my children, parents, friends. All said the same things in a variety of ways: we pray for your safe release soon. For some minutes, I felt free already.
On Diana’s, the one I opened first, I had noticed a faint #4 to the left of the return address on her letter. Inside the date read October 7, six weeks earlier. . . . She was dejected, she said, because the US State Department wouldn’t talk with her because—they said—she had no legal claim to information about me. It troubled her that Circelia was telling all who’d listen about our happy marriage, and that she would do all to get me—her beloved—out.
The photograph of Diana, unmistakable and standing near the edge of a horse pasture, puzzled as well as comforted me: she wore a helmet and boots and carried a switch; a dozen or so paces behind her were two horses, brown. The trees beyond the horses had red leaves colored by the bright sun of a glorious fall day, but in a place I didn’t recognize, as if the year had brought changes as profound in her world as in mine. While we were together, she’d always wanted a horse. Her face was tight. I wondered what she’d say if we spoke face-to-face in that horse pasture sitting on that rail fence.
She’d included a note from a mutual friend, which I left beside her photo—“Will, Just grin, and don’t stop grinning. Grin until you believe it, and one day soon, they will put you on a plane. I promise. Love–Wilson.” Good advice, I thought, better than swinging a pipe or flinging excrement or otherwise acting like a madman.
The next afternoon, Kamal brought a telephone to our house and plugged it into the wall. At supper the night before he’d announced that we’d get to call a family member, but the catch was we needed to invite that person to spend Christmas with us, here in Asmida.
As he made the first call—with Joe, a new guest—the calling system turned out more convoluted than the proposition was ludicrous. First, he called the Asmida switchboard, asked the operator to call Baghdad, and then hung up. When the switchboard operator got through to Baghdad, he called Kamal. Then he told Baghdad the overseas number and then hung up again. When the Baghdad operator got through to the overseas number, he called Kamal, and Kamal passed the phone to us. The eerie thing about the arrangement, as he described it, was that he—the guard, the “enemy”—would hear our loved one’s voice and converse before we actually did.
Joe was a Londoner who’d been moved in recently from a power plant near Ur. I knew little about him and I decided it’d be better to ignore him than to dislike him. The steps and waiting involved in making a call this way epitomized inefficiency, but I learned more about Joe that evening than I had in the two weeks he’d been a housemate. He’d been on Somerset’s flight, traveling to Calcutta to see his fiancée, whom he was to have married at the end of November.
Several times, Kamal warned us, “I will be listening, as will people in Baghdad. If you say something military, my hand will be on the receiver to cut the line immediately.”
I tried to anticipate problems with the call: there’d be an echo on the line and without forewarning, Diana would be speechless—half asleep or teased into thinking I was calling from an airport on my way home.
Joe’s timing was right for him to catch his family and fiancée—she’d come to wait for him at his parents’ home—at Sunday dinner. At first I thought he must have felt self-conscious to have us all listening in on his call. But I focused more on rehearsing what I’d say to Diana, not on listening to others.
Then Kamal handed me the receiver, and despite the labyrinthine system, my call connected, all the people in the room disappearing and the misery of several months falling away when I heard Diana, the voice associated with better times. But the connection was poor and scratchy.
“Diana, it’s Will. I’m in Iraq.”
“Will, oh my.” She said nothing for a few second, and I supposed she might be crying. The line hissed and echoed ghostly sounds. “Will, We’re trying to get you out. Nabil has offered to take your place.” She said nothing again for some time. Who’s Nabil, I wondered.
“How are you doing, love?” I asked.
“Sorry, I didn’t hear that.” She said.
I repeated my question.
“It’s hard,” she said. “And the State Department won’t tell me anything, They talk only with Circelia.” She was crying, and so was I.
I said nothing about her coming here for Christmas; unable to hear well, what I did perceive raised many questions. We lacked time or clarity to pursue something about a Palestinian friend volunteering to take my place as a hostage, but I didn’t know any Palestinians in common with her. She said the divorce wasn’t final and that Circelia had told people—including a newspaper reporter—that I’d indicated an interest in reconciliation. Why wouldn’t the divorce be final? Why the hell is Circelia talking to the newspaper about these things? What form of insanity would lead her to think I would reconcile? Didn’t everyone know that through this ordeal, “getting back to Diana” had been my mantra? She said nothing about my son’s hospitalization. Was she withholding bad news?
The line suddenly went dead. It couldn’t have been ten minutes. I felt overwhelmed by a sense of the horrors when private people get caught up in the trawl net of international politics.
Subdued, I said, “Thanks, Kamal. Thanks.” I’d just talked at her. I didn’t catch much of what she said.
“Maybe you can call in two weeks again,” he said.
The call helped me believe I’d get out. Escaping across the desert or through the water might not be necessary anymore. Diana existed again; immediacy returned. She was the audience for my diary. In the following days I saw her more clearly again. I swam harder, farther underwater without coming up for air. I resumed doing exercises. I walked longer and faster around the refinery, especially at night. I worked even harder on seeing and writing down all the sights within the refinery. More than ever, I drank in through all my senses, but I had to see all I could. Looking at everything in this refinery seemed to give me power. Maybe I distracted myself by scrutinizing the details and writing them into my notebook. Distraction freed me from thinking about my son and other kids, our future, my life.
Jack learned from his phone call that his wife was coming to Iraq not at Christmas but in a few days, “This is not just for a visit,” she had stated.
One evening a few days after the telephone call and Diana’s familiar voice, the sun set colorfully as we walked the dusty road back from the mesbah. It was Thursday, the eve of the Sabbath, and something about the backlit small blue clouds floating in a pink and yellow sky made it feel like an American Saturday night. In spite of a waning moon and all the threats we faced, I almost felt comfortable. Saad had walked us to the mesbah that afternoon even though his Volkswagen stood by their house. Walking had become an important ritual for me; besides providing exercise, going out the gate hinted at freedom, a reminder of a normal life I once had, one that might never return.
Walking to the mesbah, we met friendly faces and ones that became so. Umm Kul on the road with her daughter—about the same age as mine—pushing a cart carrying large gray plastic water jugs, RO water for their home up beyond the camp. Her daughter wore a long frilly white dress and had her hair in braids halfway to her waist. Sometimes the people in the Evinrude truck passed slowly by us, reminding me of the small motors on fishing boats on a New England pond. An old Iraqi man named Nasser occasionally greeted us: lean and grizzled, he wore a white cheffafi on his head. His gray shirt had a red pocket patch that read Mitsubishi Heavy Industries; his accent and mannerisms—bowing and touching his nose with his index finger whenever referring to himself—reflected the Japanese who must have taught him English while he helped build the refinery.
Saad never seemed like a guard: a guide to the culture maybe, but not a member of the “secret police,” a term often now used with the adjective dreaded; informal and bored, he slouched as we walked and smiled most of the time. I considered him the one to bribe for a ride to the border. He never talked about Saddam. One day when I asked if he was in the army, he shook his head. “No, I’m an economics student at the University of Basra, but as I told you, there are no classes now.” I had suggested to him once that I was bored and could spend some time teaching English at the university, and he responded that it was closed that semester, as if, were it not closed, naturally he’d get me a job application. He reported he liked English, that he had read The Merchant of Venice the previous year.
Walking with Saad and Reiner admiring this sunset made me very restless. And then in the twilight I spotted an old bus parked beside the market; I’d never seen it before, a 1957 Chevrolet cab, like a pickup, to which a wooden bus coach had been added. The wood, a rich but dry color, looked old and dry enough to spontaneously combust.
“Saad, let’s go look at the bus?” I asked, hoping he caught the eagerness in my voice.
“Why?” he asked.
“I just want to. It’s a great bus, don’t you think so, Reiner?”
“Why?” Saad repeated. He seemed concerned I was teasing him. “It’s an old bus.” Reiner said nothing.
“Yes, but it’s a fifty-seven Chevy,” I said.
He laughed. “What?”
“It’s a Chevrolet built in 1957,” slowing the sentence down.
“We call this ‘fifty-seven’ also,” he said, but it sounded more like fuffety-seben.
“Why?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, leading us toward the bus.
“Why do you call it a fifty-seven?” asked Reiner, looking at me.
“Because that’s the year it was made. That’s what it is,” I said.
“Well,” he said, “maybe that’s why Iraqis call it a fifty-seven too.”
“But it’s English,” I said.
The metal parts of the bus had been painted over so many times that they had texture; orange was the top color although a few pitted spots revealed a green underneath, maybe a new layer of color for each new owner. The wood had once been varnished but now bore the color of the desert. The Iraqi desert already preserved American technology and trucks.
Kamal had disappeared again after all the telephone calls. Whatever other missions he was assigned to turned him sour. He would talk little and lost his temper quickly. Once he appeared with a notepad. “I need to get everyone’s size and color preferences for coats, sweater, boots, and so on,” he said, sitting down at the table near the metal door. I imagined it was going to snow soon, or maybe we were moving to a place in the northern mountains where there would be snow.
I sat across from him. “Kamal, I appreciate your giving me clothes, but I would rather go to Kuwait and get my own clothes—and other things—papers and books.”
“Just give me your size,” he snapped. “None of this is my idea, Will. I have orders to follow.” I gave him some numbers, caring little whether they were correct or not. I reiterated wanting shoes just like Ali’s. My tennis shoes were worn out and the sandals were not right for cold weather or running across the desert. Ali wore steel-toed work boots that no desert thorn could rip.
A few days later as Abu Alaa and I studied Arabic and English, he asked if I wanted to call the United States. I told him I wanted to talk with zawaj talaq, of whom he had become a fan. Unlike Kamal, he just dialed the number I gave, and Circelia answered.
“Hallo?” she said, her voice was clear but far away. This was the voice of conflict and incessant fighting. Once it had been a different voice, a beloved one: it still had the same accent, but the associations had changed since we first met. I switched immediately to French; Abu Alaa didn’t even show that he noticed or cared.
“Yes, all is well with our son. But I can tell you more about that when I visit.” she said, conveying no trace of hesitation.
“What’s wrong with Junior?” I pressed.
“I’ll tell you when I’m there,” she repeated.
Do not even think about coming here,” I told her. To my astonishment Abu Alaa didn’t question my talking another language. He didn’t even appear to be listening. I repeated the sentence: “Ne viens pas!” (Do not come here)
“Oh, yeah. OK. Uh—huh,” she said, the manner of her agreeing making me nervous, since it seemed clear she’d already decided to come.
November 7: Iraq releases some hostages
November 19: Iraq offers to release all hostages by spring