Captivity: 118 Days in Iraq and the Struggle for a World Without War - James Loney (2011)
I step into the room. There’s a smell that makes me want to pinch my nose—sad, stale, rancid, despairing. Ahead of me, a window barricaded with chairs, boxes, piles of junk, stained bedsheet curtains. There’s someone behind me. I turn around. It’s Norman and Tom, sitting on chairs against the wall. They’re pasty, haggard, cadaverous, their faces grizzled with unshaved beard, eyes dull and lifeless. They see me, I think.
“Tom! Norman! Am I ever glad to see you guys!” I burst out. They sit like grey statues, unable to move or speak. “Are you guys okay?”
“Jim,” Norman manages to say. Opening his mouth seems to be an effort.
“We thought … you had been released,” Tom says, speaking in slow motion. They both look pained.
“No, no such luck,” I say with a laugh. Neither of them smiles. “We didn’t know what happened to you guys. We thought maybe … Well, it’s just really good to see you again. Really really good.”
“We thought you had been released,” Norman says. There’s dismay in his voice.
“Are you guys okay?”
They nod. I wonder if I look like them and just don’t know it. I have no idea how captivity is affecting me.
Junior enters the room. “Doctor! Thomas! Okay?” he says, a big smile on his face.
“Hello,” Norman mumbles. “We haven’t seen you in a while.”
“Salam alakum,” Tom says. Junior bristles at his greeting.
“One big happy family all together again,” I say.
Great Big Man unlocks my wrists. I stretch and arch my back. He pulls a chair out of the jumble in front of the window and places it next to Norman. Tom is locked by the wrist to a chain that’s padlocked around the door’s cantilever handles. Norman is handcuffed to him. Neither of them is wearing shoes. I sit down. Great Big Man handcuffs me to Norman.
“Just like old times,” I say when the captors leave.
“Quite,” Norman says. “Where’s Harmeet?”
“Back at the other house,” I tell them. “The captors took me in the trunk of a car, said they’ll bring him next.” They nod. “How have they been treating you?” I want to know everything.
Pretty much the same as at the first house, they say. The first night, they slept in a room downstairs. Otherwise they’ve been here the whole time, guarded by the big man. So far he’s been treating them well. Unlike Junior, he’s calm and steady. When he gets bored, he goes rummaging around the house and brings them things to identify. Little bottles of shampoo. A whisk. A coffee press. Oven cleaner. There’s another captor too. He’s only stuck his head in the door once, just for a second. He seems shy, almost timid, as if he doesn’t want to be here. They think maybe he cooks the food. They’ve been getting three hamburgers a day. Just like us, I say. Sometimes they put a tomato in it. They got macaroni once, and eggs once. No fair, I say.
I ask if they’ve seen Medicine Man. Once, Norman says. Twice, Tom says. Each time they were videoed.
“It was only once,” Norman insists.
“No, it was twice,” Tom says. “Remember, the first time it was in the room downstairs. They made us wear jumpsuits. And the next day they filmed us again, in the bathroom downstairs, blindfolded, with chains around our wrists, in jumpsuits again. Remember?”
“No, I don’t,” Norman says.
“Oh my God! That must have been terrifying,” I say.
“I don’t remember that, and I don’t care to,” Norman says.
The room falls silent. “Any sign of our shoes?” I ask. No. “What about sleeping?” They sleep right in the room, on the futon heaped against the chairs and the thin cotton mat lying on top of it. “And the bathroom?” It’s across the foyer, Norman explains. It has a Western-style toilet and bathtub. The toilet has no running water. The big man lets them go as often as they need to. They point to a filmy one-litre plastic water bottle and two stainless steel cups. They can drink as much water as they want.
We can’t believe it, they say again and again. We thought for sure you’d been released. Their faces are dull and vacant. It’s as if they’re in shock or wearing masks.
I turn my attention to the room. The walls are a soft pink, the ceiling baby blue. I wonder if it might have belonged to a little girl. The floor is eleven pebble-speckle tiles wide and sixteen long. Each tile is a square foot. The window is seven feet wide and four feet high. The left half of the window is covered by a swath of heavy-woven olive green fabric, the right by an unwashed floral-print bedsheet swarming with brown stains. The windows are covered with vertical bars.
Long jagged strips of paint hang from the ceiling. The plaster above the window and along the walls is extensively water damaged. To the right of the window, in the blistered paint and crumbling plaster, I see a figure with a powerful torso jumping up with one arm above his head. A man reaching for freedom. I wonder if Tom and Norman have seen it too.
I count ten wooden chairs in the barricade in front of the window, many of them with broken thwarts or missing seats. In the left corner of the room there’s an imperial-looking throne chair with hand-carved arms and legs. Sitting on the chair is a three-foot-long, two-foot-wide aluminum light fixture with a light bulb the size of an ostrich egg. Poking out of cardboard boxes that are piled on top of and jammed underneath the chairs, a strange assortment of odds and ends: a flattened soccer ball, a dark room clock, a Polaroid camera, floor tiles, videocassettes, a red velvet-sided treasure box decorated with a lion’s head. Things that have nowhere else to belong.
“What’s that thing over there?” I point to a brown, boxy piece of furniture at the edge of the barricade.
“It’s a hostess trolley,” Norman says. “If you open up the top, you’ll see where you can put trays of food to keep warm. It’s only useful if you do a lot of entertaining. Something the previous occupants must have done a lot of, judging by the size of this house.”
“What about that?” I ask, pointing to a cube covered with grey carpet, two-feet high and a foot and a half square.
“We’re not sure,” Tom says. “When we asked the big man, he kept saying zowagi, zowagi and imitated a woman putting on lipstick. We think it’s something a woman must sit on at a dressing table.”
I wonder whose house it is, and if they have any idea what it’s being used for now. Tom says hundreds of thousands have left the country—anybody with financial means. The houses they leave behind are taken over by insurgents. Who’s going to know, much less question, whether or not the occupants of a house have a right to be there—especially under the current circumstances, when asking questions can get you killed.
We hear a vehicle pulling up the driveway, voices under the window, a door below us opening and closing, a high-pitched gurgling laugh. “That sounds like Medicine Man,” I say.
Junior enters the room first, followed by Harmeet carrying a massive ball of fiery red blanket, followed in turn by Medicine Man. For a split second Harmeet looks stunned. Then he smiles. “Dudes! Fancy meeting you here.”
“We’ve got to stop meeting this way,” I say. Tom and Norman smile weakly. It’s a restrained reunion.
Harmeet asks Medicine Man what to do with the blanket. Medicine Man points to the floor next to the beanbag. Harmeet drops it on the floor. Yuck. The floor is filthy. I hope that’s not the blanket we’re using tonight.
Junior pulls a chair out of the barricade. “Move,” he says, directing us to shift our chairs to his left. There’s just enough room between the wall and the open door to fit a fourth chair. “Sit down,” he says to Harmeet. He handcuffs Harmeet’s right hand to my left.
“You see? You are all together again. Everyone is fine,” Medicine Man says. “We just have some negotiation with our political arm and you release for the election. We do this to make some announcement to show we are not the terrorist. One day, two day, and you release, case closed.” He slides one palm over the other in two quick chopping motions. “Okay? You need something?”
Can you get us some toothbrushes? I say. Yes, he will bring a toothbrush. Four toothbrushes, I say, one for each of us, in a pretty-please-with-sugar-on-top voice. The idea of having to share one toothbrush horrifies me. He raises his eyes in surprise. You want four toothbrushes? Yes, I say. He smiles indulgently. Something else? he asks.
“We seem to have lost our shoes,” Norman says. Medicine Man turns to Junior. They exchange words. Medicine Man turns back to us. They’re at the other house, he tells us. He will bring them. I fight to disguise my irritation. They’re not there, I say. They disappeared right after Tom and Norman were brought here. Medicine Man and Junior converse then laugh. Okay, he says, I’ll bring you some shoes. “It must be the big man. Maybe he take them to his farm. Something else?”
Tom says he needs medicine for his stomach. Medicine Man asks if there’s a problem with the food. The food is good, Tom says, it’s my stomach that’s bad. He needs an antacid. “What this?” Medicine Man says. Tom offers to write it down for him. Medicine Man searches his pockets—he has no paper. Junior tears a piece of cardboard out of a box in the barricade and hands it to Medicine Man. Medicine Man hands Tom the cardboard and a pen. “Anything else?” We shake our heads. “Okay. I go.”
The kitchen door slams. A car pulls away. I become aware for the first time of the rushing sound of traffic, horns blaring, an occasional shout. The outside world is very close. Only a curtain and a window’s width away. I look at the three men I am locked to, listen to their breathing, their bodies shifting in their chairs. We’re alive! “It’s good to see you guys,” I say.
“I hope you don’t take this the wrong way,” Tom says. “I wish I could say the same, but I’m not. We really thought you’d been released.”
“How was your trip over?” I ask Harmeet. “What was it like riding in the trunk?”
“The worst part was waiting. The house was so quiet it was creepy. I didn’t know if they were going to come back for me or if I was going to be left there. I thought about trying to escape, but there wasn’t much I could do locked to the bed, and I didn’t know if there really was a guard outside. They gave me some biscuits and some water, but I didn’t eat them just in case they didn’t come back for me. It seemed to take forever, but it was only a couple hours. I didn’t like it. When Medicine Man and Junior came back, they handcuffed me and made me lie on the floor in the back. I didn’t have to go in the trunk.”
“That’s no fair. Did they blindfold you?”
“No, just the hat over my eyes. I didn’t have my glasses. Medicine Man said if I made any noise or tried to run away, he’d kill me.”
“Did you think about trying to escape?”
“No. There wasn’t much I could do the way my hands were handcuffed.”
Slowly, in tiny, incremental steps, we fashion as best we can a home for ourselves in our paint-peeling room of gloom. One of our first tasks is to make a bed. We fold and tuck the cotton mat against the wall and lay the futon next to it to form an area of mattress wide enough for us to lie side by side. We place two folded-up curtains (giant gun-barrel-grey bolts of dust-reeking fabric) and two “pillows” (filthy brown pancakes I can hardly bring myself to touch) on the floor along the length of the futon to cushion our legs and feet. Later, in January, when we are all-day shivering cold, we will use these pillows to insulate our feet from the floor.
I sweep my hand along the floor and hold it in the light of the kerosene lantern. It’s covered with dust, sand, hair, crumbs. I sweep my hand across the surface of the futon. It’s full of little gritty bits. I get down on my hands and knees and brush the futon madly with my hand.
“What’re you doing?” Tom asks.
“The futon’s covered with dirt. I’m cleaning it before we have to sleep on it.”
“We’ve been sleeping on it for a week. It doesn’t matter,” Norman says, impatient.
Yes, it does, I want to say. I don’t want to sleep in filth. “It’ll just take a second.” There’s too much of it. I sense the captors are getting impatient with my housekeeping efforts. I’ll finish the job tomorrow.
Tom hands each of us a bulky, lead-weight pillow. What are you going to use? we ask. He says he’ll roll up his sweater and use it as a pillow. We offer to share. No, Tom insists, he’ll be fine.
The captors put Tom on the outside of the bed by the door so they can chain him to the door handle. We ask if Harmeet and I can sleep between Tom and Norman so that Norman can have one hand free. “Kabir, kabir,” we say, reminding them of Norman’s age. They agree. Junior kicks off his flip-flops and steps onto the bed. We hold up our wrists. He locks Harmeet to Tom, Harmeet to me, me to Norman.
“Okay?” he says as he closes each handcuff. “Okay,” we say, just before the handcuff becomes uncomfortably tight. He nods and clicks it down one more notch, just to be sure. He grabs a length of chain and bends over Norman’s foot so that his face is only inches away. He wraps the chain around Norman’s right ankle, then struggles to get the padlock shackle through two links of the chain. He wants it tight. He scowls, Norman clenches his jaw, the lock clicks shut. Junior stands up and moves to Tom’s foot. Norman touches the chain, as if testing to see if it’s real. Junior, physically repulsed, touches Tom as little as possible as he locks Tom’s left ankle with the chain that leads to Norman’s right.
I grit my teeth as the captors drag the big red blanket across the floor and heap it at the foot of our bed. We open it up and pull it flat. It’s a heavy polyester fleece material decorated with a profusion of green leaves on a screaming red background. It isn’t big enough to cover all four of us. I cross my arms and shiver. “The blanket is too small. We need another blanket,” I say to the captors.
Junior shrugs. “No blanket.”
“You must have something,” I say. Junior shakes his head. I fight to contain my anger. “From the other house? Or the market?”
Junior scowls. Great Big Man leaves the room and returns with an armful of fabric: white latticed cotton with delicate floral embroidery lined with a sheen of cream-coloured silk. He drops the fabric on Tom’s legs.
“What the hell’s that? It looks like a bridal gown,” I mutter.
“I can make this work. I don’t need a lot of blanket,” Tom says. The chain at his right hand clatters on the floor as he teases the fabric apart. “It’s a curtain. They must’ve ripped it off a window.” He folds it in thirds and slides himself between the rustling layers. We’ll take turns, we tell him. “No, it’s okay, I’ll be fine,” Tom insists.
Great Big Man puts a finger to his lips. “Shhh. No killam,” he says, pointing to the window. We nod, say good night. They turn the lantern down, set it outside the door, make their way downstairs. Diesel generators hum in the night around us. The street outside is curfew quiet. The murmur of television rises up through the stairwell.
There’s too much light. I can count the brown stains on the bedsheet curtain. I hear Harmeet, Norman and Tom shifting in their places, trying to get comfortable.
“Tom, can we close the door a little? It’s awfully bright in here,” I say.
Tom pulls on the door. A sharp groaning reverberates through the second-floor foyer. I hold my breath, listen intently. The television chatters on. “I’ll have to work on that,” Norman says.
I look up at the angular shadows on the ceiling cast by the lantern.
“Good night, Tom,” Harmeet says.
“Good night, Harmeet,” Tom says.
“Good night, Norman,” Harmeet says.
“Good night, Harmeet,” Norman says.
“Good night, Jim,” Harmeet says.
I start giggling. “Good night, John Boy,” I say.
“John Boy?” Norman says.
“They’re characters from a seventies TV show called The Waltons,” I say. “It always ends with the characters saying good night to each other. Do you remember it, Tom?”
“Good night, Mary Ellen,” he says.
I’m so glad we’re together again. I can’t imagine going through this alone. I want to say this, but don’t. I don’t want to sound maudlin.
I lie awake for a long time.
DECEMBER 12 DAY 17
Sometime in the early hours of the morning, before the first call to prayer, I’m awakened by an engine-roaring procession of vehicles. A military convoy, vital occupation supply line, very close, no more than a hundred metres away. I want to leap up, hurl open windows, scream for help with every ounce of breath and strength. The last truck passes. Silence pours back into the room, flooding me with despair.
Every night at about the same time, another convoy will barrel past, heard but not seen. Help so close, and yet so far.
Great Big Man unlocks us while Junior, leaning against the wall with his arms folded across his chest, watches irritably. Tom goes to the bathroom. Harmeet gathers up the big red blanket and drops it on the floor near the barricade, sending up a cloud of dust. I get down on my hands and knees and vigorously brush the futon with my hand. When I’m done, Harmeet and Norman fold the futon in half and drag it across the floor towards the barricade, cutting a swath through dustballs, candy wrappers, sunflower seeds.
“Haji,” I say to Great Big Man in My Most Polite Hostage Voice. “Do you have a broom?” He looks at me. “A broom,” I say, demonstrating with my hand. He shakes his head. “The floor is very dirty. Mooshkilla,” I say. I wipe my index finger on the floor and show it to him.
Tom returns and I take my turn in the bathroom. It’s directly across from our room. There’s a Batman sticker on the door. I assume it as a right and close the door. No one objects. It’s an eight-foot-by-eight-foot room. There’s a puddle of water around the base of the sink and a long slimy effluence leading to a drain near the tub. I’m suddenly very conscious of my stocking feet. The white tile floor is even dirtier than the floor in our room. We’re going to need hamam shoes.
Above the tub, up near the ceiling, light pours into the room through a translucent rectangular window a foot high and two feet wide. The window, divided into two parts, opens outwards. Each half of the window is fitted with a cantilever handle. The window ledge is cluttered with old toothbrushes, a Snoopy bath toy, a rotting hairbrush and a crumpled Irish Spring box.
I quickly assess that it would be possible to pull-hoist myself through the window headfirst. But then what? The window must be twenty-five feet off the ground. I could call or signal for help. No. That would lead to a military rescue operation, and the very real possibility of somebody getting killed.
The pleasure of being alone is intoxicating. There’s no one to observe me, no one to answer to or worry about obeying. For a few moments I can do whatever I want. I step to the driest part of the room to jump in the air and twirl my arms. There’s a mirror over the sink. I gaze into my eyes, frown, smile, wiggle my eyebrows. I’m pasty, thinner, my hair is oily and matted. I smell myself, check the state of my underwear, pull up my shirt, run my hand across my belly. I guess that I’ve lost fifteen pounds.
All of the bathroom fixtures—vanity, toilet and bathtub—are baby blue. The toilet is the ceramic-bowl type common in the West. It’s caked with brown, and a noxious stew of urine and shit festers at the bottom. The water supply to the toilet has been shut off. I lift the lid off the tank, being careful not to make any noise that would arouse suspicion. The flush mechanism is hopelessly corroded. We’re going to have to get a water pitcher to flush it manually.
There’s a cracked yellow plastic toilet seat on the floor. I put it in place and sit down, being careful to avoid pinching my thigh in the broken plastic. I hop over to the sink with my pants hanging about my knees. I wet my left hand, squat down, wipe, trying not to drip water on the floor. I make a mental note to ask for a hamam jug.
There’s no soap. I take a quick look around the bathroom. There’s a rotting string bag hanging from the shower faucet that holds several cracked bars of soap. I take one and wash my hands. The water is ice cold. I’m perplexed. Norman and Tom have been here a week and haven’t even thought to take some soap for themselves so they can wash their hands. It seems as if they’ve made no effort at all to improve the conditions of their captivity. They’ve been living without hope, like men condemned.
I see a rubber squeegee with a long broom-handle pole leaning against the wall. I make a plan to clean the floor tomorrow. I’m excited. Something useful to do.
When I return, Harmeet, Norman and Tom are sitting in their chairs against the wall. I sit between Norman and Harmeet. Junior locks our wrists together.
Standing near the hostess trolley, Great Big Man pivots on his toes like a dancer and grabs four samoons lying on the dirty surface of the trolley. He pivots again, crosses the room in two steps, hands us our breakfast. “Shokren,”we say as he leaves.
“Well, here we are. Day 17,” I say.
“Day 16,” Harmeet says. I chuckle. “How did everyone sleep?” he asks.
“Fine,” I say.
Tom says he isn’t sleeping well. Only a couple of hours a night. It’s the acid in his stomach. “I don’t know what’s going to happen if this continues. I can’t function without sleep.” Norman sleeps okay until his side starts to hurt in the middle of the night. He can hardly bear it sometimes. He says it would help if he could move around. Why don’t you stand up and stretch? I ask him. He says he doesn’t want to bother me. That wouldn’t bother me at all, I say. We’ll see, he says.
I suggest that we have a meeting. “That’s a good idea,” Tom says. “Shall we make an agenda?”
“I shall have to check first to see if I’m available,” Norman says. “Let’s see … No, I don’t have anything else scheduled right now.” I think he’s joking, but I’m not sure.
First item: futon. Can we avoid dragging it across the floor? I ask. No problem. Can we always fold it over the same way so we can keep the side we sleep on clean? Sure. Can we put the blanket on top of the futon instead of on the floor? Yes. Can we use the Quality Street tin for garbage? Okay.
We need to get a broom, I say. I can’t stand the filth of this place. Wait, someone says, are there other things we need before that? We make two lists: one for the guards and one for Medicine Man. Broom, water jug and hamam shoes go on the guards’ list; stomach medicine, street shoes and Norman’s reading glasses go on the Medicine Man list. I suggest another blanket for Tom. Tom says no, that’s not necessary. Norman suggests a bible. I say no, we should only ask for what they can realistically get; how’re they going to find a bible in Iraq? Tom wants us to ask for sleeping pills. Norman wonders if they’re readily available given the conditions in the country. “Half of Iraq is taking sleeping pills,” Tom says.
Last item: we still don’t have names for two of the captors—the big one and the shy one. “He was really quite kind when it was just the two of us,” Norman says of Great Big Man. “He was almost like an uncle.”
“Hey, let’s call him Uncle,” Harmeet says. It’s agreed.
“What about the other one,” somebody says. “He seems kind of timid, almost like a captor-in-training.”
“Like a nephew,” someone else says. We all laugh. Nephew. It’s perfect.
Slowly, our persistence wins results. One day there’s a pair of grungy plastic hamam shoes at the bathroom door, the next a yellow water jug. When Uncle enters the room holding a little hand broom, I almost want to kiss him. “Thank you! Thank you!” I say. He flashes me a big smile.
I get to work cleaning the next morning. The broom, the water jug, the hamam shoes—these are crucial recognitions of our human dignity, signs that our captors are not going to kill us. At least not right away. And it feels good not to live in filth.
The struggle to assert our humanity, improve our living conditions, expand our knowledge about the geography of our hostage prison is unceasing. Every interaction is a strategic testing, an opportunity to examine the habits of our captors. Who knows when or where we will stumble across something—the open window or door, the misplaced key, the act of kindness or thoughtless mistake—through which we can escape this nightmare existence? It is in every thought, word and action: the irrepressible, burning urge to be free.
The next victory in this invisible war is our morning exercise routine. It happens gradually, imperceptibly, over the course of several days. It begins our first morning in the second house when the captors arrive to get us up. They step heavily, faces dull like Monday morning factory workers. They stand and watch as we fold our bedding and set up our chairs for the day. We work quickly, almost urgently, why I don’t know. Maybe it’s because it feels so good to be doing something, or maybe we’re sending a message to the captors. See, you can trust us. We’re doing what we’re supposed to do—quickly, efficiently, in the best way we can. We won’t take advantage of you by taking more time than we need.
We finish this morning chore before the first person is done in the bathroom. We stand waiting, charged, ready, alert to everything, like deer in the middle of a clearing. The energy in our bodies irrepressibly seeks release. We start bending, twisting, stretching, reaching. It’s instinctive, primal, can’t be stopped. A prisoner must exercise.
The room becomes crowded with movement, and the captors, suddenly in our way, move into the foyer. We exercise with the singular focus of Olympic champions. The same thing happens the next morning, and the captors leave the room earlier. I do my exercises in the doorway to give the others more room. We don’t go back to our chairs until the captors tell us to. The morning after that, the captors don’t spend any time in the room at all. I ask Uncle if I can stand just outside the door. There’s not enough room, I explain in body language. He says yes.
The morning after that, Harmeet moves into the foyer too. They don’t object. With every passing day, we take longer in the bathroom. From fifteen minutes, we push our little envelope of freedom to half an hour.
One morning, Uncle waves us into the foyer, arms flapping in jumping jack motions. The foyer is shaped like an L. Our room, the bathroom and another bedroom open onto the short side of the L, an area about eight feet wide and eight feet long. The second part of the L is much bigger, maybe fifteen feet wide and twenty feet long. A modernist concrete stairwell with open risers is located to the right of the bathroom. Each set of stairs, one leading to the roof, the other descending to the ground floor, pauses at a landing halfway up and halfway down. Heavy red velour curtains cover the lower-landing window while light pours into the foyer through the upper-landing window.
I move hesitantly into the open expanse of the foyer. The walls are high and white. It feels strange to be surrounded by so much space and light. I stand for a moment, unsure of what I should do. I count four more doors, all of them closed. Not counting the bathroom, six rooms open off the foyer. I look longingly at the stairs. They must go to the roof. The curtains, I think—if the door to the roof is not locked, we could tear them into strips, tie them together and make our escape by climbing down the building.
“Come on, Jim! Exercise.” Junior puffs out his cheeks and pumps his arms. He’s uncomfortably close.
I smile and step back. “Yes! Exercise good!” I say, matching his enthusiasm with some jumping jacks. It’s good to feel my heart pumping again.
I lie on my stomach with my palms against the floor. I have to see how many push-ups I can do. Normally it’s thirty-five or forty. It takes everything I have to get to fifteen. I sit back on the floor, my body trembling like a leaf. My eyes meet Junior’s. He looks away quickly. He doesn’t want me to know that he was counting, measuring himself against me.
Those first two weeks at the second house are a swirling mass of inchoate waiting. Nothing has form or shape. We sit, we lie on our backs, we drift and float, anchorless on an ocean of grey. Medicine Man’s promise of release echoes in every footstep, phone call, door opening and closing. We wait on pins and needles, ask the guards for news. “Shwaya, shwaya,” they say. Every minute is a lash.
One of the few things I can remember about those interminable days happens one afternoon. We ask Junior and Uncle if we can go to the bathroom. They say yes and unlock us one at a time. When it’s Tom’s turn, Junior becomes agitated. What’s he doing in there? he cries. Why is he taking so long?
We hear a clang in the bathroom. Tom has dropped something on the floor. Junior rushes to the bathroom door. “La firar! Amriki! Amriki!” he shouts, pounding with his fist on the door.
“Just a second,” I hear Tom say.
Junior bangs harder on the door.
I find it curious. There’s no lock, nothing to stop Junior from just going in. This is good. Junior feels bound to respect Tom’s privacy. He sees him as a human being.
The door opens. There’s a flurry of angry Arabic from Junior. Tom returns to his chair, defiantly calm. Junior follows close behind, his face red. “This CIA. This hazeem,” he says, pointing at Tom. He locks Tom up and goes directly to the bathroom to investigate. Later we see that he has wrapped a piece of wire around the window handles to make sure it can’t be opened.
“What happened?” we ask Tom.
“I don’t know. I just knocked the water jug over and the next thing I know he’s pounding on the door,” Tom says.
When Junior brings us our samoon supper, I try to explain that Tom was not trying to escape, he just knocked the water jug over. Junior is not interested. “No, this Amriki najis. This CIA. This jaysh.”
At lock-up, Junior tells Tom to move his legs closer together, he’s going to chain both his ankles because he tried to escape. Tom tries to explain that if his legs are chained too close he won’t be able to move them during the night and they will cramp up. No, Junior says, move them closer. Tom refuses. Junior tries to push Tom’s feet together. Tom resists, sending Junior into a rage. “No! This mozane,” Junior snarls. He tries once more to push them together. Tom braces his legs and tries one more time to explain. “No. Shut up. This najis!” He grabs Tom’s shirt and threatens to punch him in the face. Tom looks at him without blinking and moves his feet together.
DECEMBER 15 DAY 20
It’s election day, the first under Iraq’s new constitution, ratified in a referendum on October 15. The ballot includes a staggering list of 228 parties and 21 coalitions. Junior is in a buoyant mood. He opens our handcuffs with care and joins in our exercise routine with some stretching of his own. I’m relieved to see that he’s no longer angry with Tom. We ask Junior and Uncle if they’re going to vote. Uncle shakes his head. “No,” he says. “Ali baba.” He thinks all politicians are thieves.
“Yes,” Junior says solemnly. “This Islami. This Sunna.” He says he’s voting for Party 649.
Election day is followed by two days of curfew. Any news? we ask. No news, they say. When is Big Haji coming? we ask. When the curfew is over, they say. When the curfew is over we ask again. They don’t know. Can you phone Haji and ask him to come? Yes, they say.
Norman smuggles a soft piece of soap out of the bathroom. His idea is to use it to lubricate the hinges, so we can close the door at night without the captors hearing us. It works beautifully.
DECEMBER 18 DAY 23
Medicine Man enters the room with a whoosh of authority, Junior and Uncle following behind him. Junior puts a bulging black plastic bag on the floor near the barricade. “I have something for you,” Medicine Man says, smiling. He hands each of us a toothbrush. “They are the different colour. So you know to take them separately.”
“Thank you, thank you!” I say, holding the toothbrush against my chest.
Medicine Man laughs and hands Norman a box of Sensodyne. “This your toothpaste. For the sensitive teeth.” Shokren, we say. Afwen, he says. He points to the bag on the floor. “I bring you shoes.”
Our shoes! Walking, freedom, going home!
“And I bring you your medicine. For the stomach,” Medicine Man says, handing Tom a bottle. Tom is effusive with thanks. Medicine Man nods, stands back with his hands resting on his hips, the flaps of his suit jacket gathered behind his arms, exposing his bulging gut, a gun tucked into his belt. “Is there something else?” he asks.
Norman asks about his reading glasses. “They are at the other house,” Medicine Man says. “For all of you. All of your things—your camera, your notebook. I bring for you. We not take anything.”
Norman wants to know if he can send a message to his wife. Medicine Man looks at him blankly. “To let her know I’m alive,” he says, his voice breaking.
Medicine Man looks puzzled. “She know you alive. We take some video to show this.”
“Yes, but I should think a video of me in a jumpsuit—”
“There is one more thing,” I interrupt, worried things are moving in a bad direction. “Tom is having trouble sleeping. Would it be possible to get something to help him sleep?”
Medicine Man looks at Tom. “This is not a problem. What do you need?”
“Valium. Just something that will help me sleep.”
“I bring for you.” Medicine Man’s face turns instantly ruthless. He steps towards Tom and grabs his shirt. “I know you. You must not to escape. If you try this, I kill you. I know who you are.” Tom answers with the barest nod. Medicine Man releases Tom’s shirt and steps back.
“Tom didn’t try to escape,” I say. “He knocked a jug over in the bathroom and the sound must’ve startled haji.”
“We are trained,” Medicine Man says. “He cannot fool me. I know who he is. He is not like you. I can tell, the way he look to me. He is cold, not smiling. He is a hard man. Like the CIA. I know this. This is something we have the training for.”
My heart sinks. “Tom is a peace activist. He’s been working in Iraq with CPT for almost two years.”
Medicine Man shakes his head. “I know this. I have the training for this.”
Medicine Man edges towards the door. He’s about to leave and we haven’t asked the most important question of all. “Is there any news?” I blurt out.
“There is some change,” he says. “We have some negotiation for your case. One week and you release. Not more. You are home for Christmas.”
Time edges towards Christmas, the hope of release in every breath. We eddy and whirl in a grey fog of waiting. I lose track of the days, what happens when. There is only Christmas, blinking like a navigation light on a faraway radio tower, a red eye flashing in the darkness.
At first I am hopfeul. A Christmas release would be perfect, I say, a public relations coup! Think of the headlines: HOSTAGES REUNITED WITH THEIR FAMILIES, TERRORISTS NOT SO BAD AFTER ALL. INSURGENTS GIVE THE GIFT OF PEACE. They’ve even given us our shoes back!
Harmeet will call his family and then make his way to Palestine where he’ll join the International Solidarity Movement team in Nablus. Norman will attend the Christmas Eve service at his church and sip ginger wine afterwards with Pat. Dan and I will go to Sault Ste. Marie where there’ll be tons of snow and we’ll go tobogganing with my nieces and nephew.
Tom is the lone holdout. “We really don’t know how long we’re going to be stuck here. I’m just trying to stay in the present moment.”
Then I am irritable.
“What would you do for Christmas if we do get free?” Harmeet asks.
“I don’t want to think about that. I’m just trying to stay in the present moment.”
Present moment, present moment! Fuck the present moment. If you say that one more time, I’ll ram it down your throat and make you choke on it!
“What would you usually do for Christmas?” Harmeet presses.
“Well, for the last couple of Christmases—this is only the second Christmas since Andrew moved out on his own—Kassie and Andrew and I have a meal together on Christmas Eve and then we go to a Quaker meeting together.”
I am prickly, venomous, rabidly impatient. My mind circles around and around, like a vulture in search of carrion, something to leap on, criticize, attack. Harmeet’s wriggling toes. How Norman digs in his ears. The slow-motion way Tom blinks his eyes. The hours of aimless chatter, every word a flagellation! A voice in my head screams for silence. I fight with everything I have to hide and contain it. This is my problem, not theirs.
The black plastic bag with our shoes sits there for days. I stare at it hungrily, compulsively. Harmeet says it’s too small to hold his boots and all our shoes. I’m desperate to find out. We all are, I think, but none of us dare. We’re not sure. Could we have misunderstood? Did Medicine Man really mean for us to have our shoes back? What if they hear the rustle of the bag or catch us getting up out of our chairs?
It is Harmeet who takes the first illicit peek, one morning during exercise. “Hey guys, I have bad news. Those aren’t our shoes,” he reports as soon as the captors leave.
“Are you sure?” I ask. He has to be wrong.
“I’m sure,” he says.
Norman investigates next. “I’m afraid Harmeet is right. They look like Keds sneaker.”
My spirits plummet.
A day or two later, Junior points towards the bag and then at our feet. “Shoes. This shoes.” We nod and say thank you. He holds the bag out to us: what are you waiting for, he seems to be saying, go ahead, you can wear them. I want to leap at it. Shoes! Escape! Freedom! It’s okay, we tell him, we’re used to not having them. Junior shrugs, puts the bag within Norman’s reach and leaves. Still we don’t open it. It infuriates me. A strange and compulsory indolence has taken hold of us. We’ve lost our initiative and will, our ability to act. Our spirits have been taken captive too.
Finally, during a long stretch of afternoon, it is Tom who suggests we have a look at our new shoes. We open the bag and discover they’re black, dollar store tennis shoes, decorated with a lightning flash decal. I examine the tread, bend the toe, fit my hand inside. The biggest shoes, size nine, are hopelessly small for Tom’s size-eleven feet. Harmeet, with the smallest foot, finds a pair that fit perfectly. Norman and I are just able to squeeze into ours.
“Hey, look at this!” Harmeet says, holding up a one-inch tack. “It was stuck into the sole of the shoe.”
“Wow! That could be really useful,” I say.
“It almost looks as if somebody stuck it there,” Harmeet says.
“Remember when we watched Con Air?” I say bubbling with excitement, “how they picked their handcuffs with that piece of wire?” Everyone laughs. “Do you think that’s just Hollywood, or do you think it might actually work?”
“It’s just Hollywood,” Tom says.
“Maybe we should try it?” I say.
The room grows very quiet. My chest tightens uncomfortably. This might actually be a way for us to escape. No, they say, it’s not worth the risk. I’m not sure whether to be angry or relieved. I deliberately change the subject. “I think we should ask for bigger shoes. It’s the least they can do after stealing ours. These certainly didn’t cost them anything.”
Tom says they’ll stretch. Norman says he’s not planning to run any marathons. Harmeet says his fit just fine. I remonstrate with Tom. “You have a right to a pair of shoes that fit,” I say. I want to shake him, them, all of us. Shake us out of this strange creeping passivity, this fatalistic waiting, this lethal drug of resignation.
“I can make do with these,” Tom says, adamant, in that infuriating it’s-final-don’t-argue-with-me tone.
Tom rarely wears his shoes. They just don’t fit. Norman slides in and out of his as if they were a pair of slippers, wearing the heel collars flat. Harmeet wears his loose, laces untied. I wear mine laced up tight. They stretch and fit just right. I fall in love with them. They protect my feet from the cold and the filth of the floor. And they are ready, should a door suddenly open, to help me run.
Nephew emerges slowly from the shadows. There’s an air of regret about him, something kind, even apologetic in his eyes. He tells us he’s thirty-six, but his face, round and smooth, looks much younger. He’s five foot seven, squat, bursting with stomach like a retired football player. He is tentative and shy at first, stands back, watches, smiles. When he comes in during the day to check on us and we ask if we can go to the bathroom, he holds up his finger and goes in search of Junior or Uncle. He begins by carrying the lantern when the power is out, holding the handcuffs and chains for Junior and Uncle, giving us our food. As the days pass, he graduates to issuing instructions—hurry up in the bathroom, sit down, lower your voices—and then, sometime in the new year, he is given charge of the keys. We suspect this must be his first mission.
The nights become unbearably cold. We lobby our captors for permission to close the door at night to conserve the heat our bodies generate. They say no at first but then eventually relent. This seems to have a negative effect on the air quality in the room. A few mornings later Junior gags when he comes into the room, pulls his shirt over his nose and makes a beeline for the window. He pushes the bedsheet back and opens the window a crack. A shaft of clear gold light streams into the room. I’m transfixed. Junior turns to us, scowling and pinching his nose. I am surprised. I’d been paying close attention, monitoring myself and the others for the emergence of noxious odours. I sniff my shirt. There is a hint of staleness, but nothing strong or malfeasant. “Is it because of us?” I say to the others under my breath.
Junior bends down to unlock the chain around Norman’s ankle. He breathes heavily through his nose, lip curling in disgust. “Najis,” he says, gritting his teeth. “Naaa-jisss.”
Uncle comes into the room, coughs, waves his hand in front of his nose. Junior turns to Uncle, his arms full of gestures and complaints. Uncle breaks into knee-slapping laughter. They turn and point at Norman. “Najis,” they say, erupting in more laughter.
This is how the najis treatment begins. For a while it is gruelling and relentless. Every time the captors interact with Norman, when they unlock him in the morning and lock him up again at night, when they give him his food, when he passes them on the way to the hamam, he has to endure this word and its contemptuous tone. He steadfastly ignores them, carries on with unalterable dignity. I watch, furious at the captors and ashamed at my silence.
When Junior and Uncle aren’t around, I ask Nephew what najis means. He frowns, holds his nose, grimaces, shakes his head. That’s what it means. Something that is repulsive.
It is a growing concern for me, how to maintain a basic level of hygiene as the days pass into weeks. “Dudes, look at my socks! These used to be white!” Harmeet says one day. They’ve turned dishwater grey. We laugh though I can’t help but wonder, is this what’s happening to us too? Are we turning grey?
Cleanliness is next to godliness when you’re a captive. Your life depends on being seen as a human being. If you look and smell loathsome, you will be treated with loathing. Our worst enemy is the contempt of our captors. And, perhaps just as dangerous, getting sick.
Some things we have control over, such as the handling of our cups. It becomes quite a skill, passing a cup back and forth in handcuffs. Some of us, at first, have the unfortunate habit of gripping the lip of the cup, a major sanitary faux pas when you consider that’s exactly where you put your mouth to drink. It takes a bit of coaxing and some gentle reminding, but everybody eventually learns: when passing the cup, please and thank you, always hold it at the base.
A lot of things we don’t have control over, including being able to wash our hands, the preparation of our food and washing of our dishes, how often and when we have access to the bathroom. This is a constant worry for Norman. Our diet is having an unfortunate effect on his digestive system, causing what he calls “loose bowels.”
It first happens in the days before Christmas. Norman is seized by an immediate need to use the bathroom. He rushes to the hostess trolley and we follow him in our handcuff line, a vector sweeping across the room in an eight-foot arc with Tom as the pivot. Norman grabs a glass tray from the hostess trolley, pulls his pants down and sits over it. He does as much as he can with his left hand, his right being handcuffed to my left. I squat down beside him and turn my head away.
I would have been mortified, but Norman is remarkably composed. “I think I can do this with a minimum of mess,” he says, as if describing a scientific procedure. “I just have to make sure I have the tray in the right position. We don’t want any accidents. I kept some pillow stuffing handy for just such an emergency.” When it’s over, he laughs. “Sorry about that, chaps, but that’s what you get being chained up with an old man.”
It is the vulnerability of age that makes Norman a target. The long hours of inactivity are taking a toll. His body is stiff and non-compliant. He moves slowly, carefully, reaching for chairs and walls to steady himself. Uncle and Junior scowl and complain. “Imshee. Hurry up. Najis,” they say, feeding on each other’s contempt. I sometimes worry Junior is about to strike Norman.
Norman blocks them out, avoids their eyes, looks through them. He gives up trying to understand what they say to him. This increases the captors’ frustration and interferes with his ability to understand what they want and respond appropriately.
I worry even more about Tom. He’s lost weight and he’s not sleeping. His face is a bleak, impenetrable mask, sullen, impossible to read. When I sometimes imagine how our captors must see him, something within me hardens like a fist. But when he smiles, the effect is very different. Then there’s life, buoyancy, warmth in his eyes, and the fist gently opens.
I debate long and hard. In the end I figure there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain. They might be hurt or offended, but their lives just might depend on a little bit of coaching. I swallow hard and begin with Tom. I know it might be a strange thing to say, I tell him, but you might consider smiling more for the captors. Your face is often, well, difficult to read, and it’s hard to know what you’re thinking. If you smile more, it might shift something in the captors so they’ll want to react more positively to you.
I’m relieved. Tom is not defensive. “I guess you’re right about that. I call it my poker face. It used to upset my kids, especially if we were having an argument about something. They said they could never tell what I was thinking. Maybe that was unfair to them sometimes. I guess it’s the way I deal with things. Put on my poker face. It does come in handy sometimes.”
I talk with Norman next about how he interacts with the captors. “I don’t understand anything they say,” he says. “I’m just terrible with the Arabic. You three are much better at it.”
When they’re disrespectful to you, I say, ignoring them can be the best strategy. But if they’re being neutral or positive towards you, ignoring them risks frustrating them. Every interaction with them is an opportunity to make them see our humanity. It’s the only thing that protects us. If you look at them in the eyes and smile, that reinforces your humanity and makes it harder for them to treat you disrespectfully.
Norman agrees and tries to interact more with the captors. Eventually, though, he figures out his own solution to the najis treatment.
We’re lying down, locked up on our communal bed. Junior enters the room with a gun. He points it at Tom, at his head, in firing stance, feet planted firmly at shoulders’ width, arms straight and locked at the elbows, finger around the trigger. He stands this way, glaring, for ten long seconds, then is gone.
DECEMBER 23 DAY 28
I’ve been thinking about it for days. On the surface things are going well, but in the spaces around and behind our words I sense tension, and it’s building, like seismic forces deep in the earth. We need a safety valve, some kind of routine, a structure to help us communicate, make decisions, ease the inevitable frictions of our pressure-cooker existence. I want to propose that we think of ourselves as the CPT Kidnap Team, that we assume the disciplines of team life: daily worship, check-ins, even formal meetings. I don’t know why—it’s my job, I can see exactly what needs to be done, I am the delegation leader after all—but I just can’t bring myself to say the words. I detest and abhor my inability to act. I too am infected with the creeping paralysis of captivity.
I almost laugh when Tom makes the suggestion. It’s as if he took the words right out of my mouth. Everyone agrees. Daily check-in and worship will start tomorrow, Christmas Eve. Norman volunteers to lead our first worship.
Tom also wants to do a daily Bible study. “How would you propose to do that without a bible?” Norman asks.
“From memory,” Tom says. “It could be a paraphrase of a story, a single verse, a word or a phrase. Just say it aloud and we can discuss it together. When I did Bible study with the Young Quakers, I would pose four questions. What is the meaning of this Bible verse to me? How does it accord with my experience? What do I find difficult or troubling about it? How might it change my life?” Tom offers to lead the first Bible study.
I’m so relieved. The yoke of inertia has been broken. It’s now official: we’ve become a team.
Voices downstairs. There’s a formality, a politeness that’s different. One of the voices is higher, softer. A woman. Uncle enters the room on tiptoe. He has a gun in his hand. He looks at us sternly, puts his index finger against his lips. “Shhhh,” he says, moving with a hunter’s stealth.
Being careful not to make any sound, he pulls out a ring of keys and opens the padlock that locks the chain around the door’s cantilever handles. He gathers the chain together, sets it on the hostess trolley, then closes and locks the door. He waves his finger in warning, pretends to cough into his fist, shakes his head, pulls an index finger across his throat. If you make the slightest noise, I will kill you.
Footsteps and voices coming up the stairs. Uncle stands to the right of the door. The footsteps and voices move into the foyer and gather in front of the bathroom. The bedroom door to the left opens and closes. Uncle is ready with his gun, smiling, eyes twinkling. He’s enjoying this! The footsteps and voices move in front of our door. The door handle turns, rattles. A voice with a question in it. Somebody is trying to come in. Who could it be? A landlord perhaps?
My body explodes with adrenalin. A mad screaming fury of Help! Help! Help! thrashes in my chest. Uncle looks at me, touches his index finger to his lip. I sit like a stone. There’s no other choice. I’ll put whoever is on the other side of the door in danger too.
The voices and footsteps move away. Uncle steps back from the door, giggling, blows on the muzzle of his gun, tucks it into his waist. The voices make their way downstairs. He opens the door and peeks out. My head falls in despair.
I am haunted by the old joke about the man caught in a flood who takes refuge on the roof of his house. He’s on his hands and knees praying to God when a boat passes by and asks him if he wants help. No thanks, the man says, God will save me. Another boat passes by. They ask him if he wants help. No thanks, he says, God will save me. The flood waters rise higher and higher. A helicopter comes and lowers down a rope. No thanks, he says, God will save me. The water sweeps him away and the man drowns. When he gets to heaven, he says to God, “I prayed and prayed for help. Why didn’t you save me?” And God says, “What’re you talking about? I sent you two boats and a helicopter. What more could I have done?”
I burn in a crucible of questions. Was this the helicopter waiting to lift us to safety? Was our freedom only a shout away? Did we doom ourselves with our silence? There are no answers. And, therefore, no relief.