Captivity: 118 Days in Iraq and the Struggle for a World Without War - James Loney (2011)

Chapter 9

DECEMBER 24 DAY 29

I have no idea where I am or what is going to happen to me. There are steel bracelets around my wrists. Each bracelet is connected to another by a single link of chain fastened by a swivel eye. Right hand first, then left, I move my handcuff towards the one next to it. The two links sag together as the swivel eyes touch; then, being careful not to pull against my neighbour’s handcuff, I move it away until the chain becomes tight. I do this again and again.

My beard is itchy. I bend my face towards my wrist so I can scratch myself without pulling against Harmeet’s handcuff. I’ve been wearing the same clothes for twenty-nine days. There’s a long vertical tear in the front of my shirt. My pants are saturated with the oils from my hands. I’m ravenously hungry.

My mind wanders to Dan, my family, the Catholic Worker community, CPT. I visualize the various dinners people will be having—Dan in Owen Sound with his mother and brothers; my family gathered at my sister’s in Sault Ste. Marie; the Zacchaeus House potluck dinner line snaking out of the dining room into the hallway—the yuletide spreads of tourtière, turkey, mashed potatoes, mincemeat, shortbread. It is Christmas Eve and the people we love don’t even know if we’re alive. I remember with dread the chocolates and hand-painted cards I left for my sister to give to my nieces and nephew before I left for Iraq. I hope she’s forgotten about them. I wave these images away. It’s all too painful.

Norman clears his throat. “Shall we sing some Christmas carols?”

“Yes!” I say. I love singing. I wish the others wanted to do more of it. When we sing, our handcuffs melt away and I am free. With the help of Norman’s prodigious memory, we reconstruct parts of thirty-nine Christmas carols. My favourite is “Ding dong! merrily on high, In heav’n the bells are ringing; Ding dong! verily the sky, Is riv’n with Angel singing; Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!” The long, breathless descent of the Glo-o-o-oria fills me with celestial joy and transports me to that holy, heaven-singing night when the darkness was broken open by astounding angel words. Words delivered on seraphic wings to a bunch of lousy, mutton-odoured, good-for-nothing shepherds out in the middle of nowhere where nothing ever happens. Do not be afraid, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth.

Do not be afraid. The good news is peace. Peace, do not be afraid. Peace, the cry of every child’s birth. Peace, the birthright of every child. Peace, a baby wrapped in rags lying in an animal trough, God born into history. Peace, not by the hand that holds the gun, but by the hand that holds the newborn child.

When carolling has run its course, Norman leads us in worship. Afterwards, I turn to look at him. His face is drawn, haggard, grizzled. Dark pouches hang under his eyes. His hair is matted and wildly askew, but he’s shining and beautiful. I’m immensely grateful. To be here, with Norman, Tom and Harmeet, these three brothers. Somehow, through our helplessness, though I have no way of knowing how, God is bringing something new to birth.

DECEMBER 25 DAY 30

There’s a constant chill seeping through my cotton shirt. I’m envious of Norman with his tweed jacket and Harmeet his jumper. I remember thinking as I got dressed that Saturday morning, the last day of our freedom, I won’t need a sweater or a jacket, it’s going to be a warm day. If only I’d known then what I know now. If only, if only … I feel a bad mood coming on. I almost pitched breakfast, a samoon filled with a tablespoon of rice. It was hardly worth eating.

Norman points to the wall near the hostess trolley. Down near the floor he’s drawn a barely discernible star with a piece of soap and written the first letter of each of our names around it. “As you’ll note, it’s rather hard to see, so I got busy last night and sketched a star with my thumbnail in my little corner over here. Something to do in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep. I’m afraid it’s not much of a star. The plaster is very hard and it was jolly difficult to make the points. It’s a little lopsided, but there you have it, a five-pointed star. You can’t see it right now because my chair’s in the way. The captors won’t see it unless they get down on their knees.”

“We should add all of our names!” I say. “Wouldn’t it be neat if the owners were to see these strange English names one day. I wonder what they’d say if they knew what their house was being used for.” I turn to Harmeet. “Where’s that little nail?”

“I lost it.”

“You lost it!” I don’t believe him.

“It must’ve fallen out of my pocket when I was sleeping. I searched the blanket and all around the floor, but I couldn’t find it. I’m sorry. I’ll keep looking.”

I look down at my hands and clench my teeth. I mustn’t say anything, not a single word.

The day drags like a fallen muffler. I avoid thinking about my parents, Dan, anything at all related to the celebration of Christmas. Instead, I consider the idea of Christmas—the day God was born into the world, two thousand years ago, in a cave on a scrubby Palestinian hillside. A sentence drifts through my mind. In you and through you, everywhere and in everything, God is giving birth. Was it from a sermon I’d heard, a quote from somewhere, a Christmas card?

I look down at my handcuffs, the grungy hems of my shirt cuffs, the long tattered strips of paint peeling off the walls, the tiresome clutter blocking the window. Everything I see is stained in the hopeless, pallid light filtering through the soiled curtains. It astounds me, how your life can change, just like that, in the snap of a finger, the blink of an eye: you’re taken into a place you could never have imagined, and you’re stuck there, in it, with no way out.

What can it possibly mean, to give birth to God here, in this grim twilight, where NOTHING ever happens and each day looms like a guillotine? We might as well be on life support. How did it go, that poem by T.S. Eliot? “We are the hollow men.” That’s us, the hollow men, the handcuffed men, the empty waiting men. We are shape without form and shade without colour, a paralyzed force, gesture without motion. We lean together, headpieces stuffed with straw, our dried voices quiet and meaningless when we whisper together. There is no birth-giving here. We are stillborn in a tomb of waiting.

Damn this place. Damn this suffocated existence. I hate this! I want to scream. I want my life back!

A memory gathers in my mind. Two days before I left for Baghdad, a friend named Julie, one of the most loving people I know, invited Dan and me for supper. She was telling us about her work as a home care nurse. One of her favourite patients, a gay man, was dying. His parents had just left after a two-week visit. It was hell. They took over the household, ignored his partner, battered him with advice about medical treatments and all the things he should do to get better. They just couldn’t accept the fact that he was dying. “What am I going to do?” he said to Julie. “They say they’re moving in when they come back.”

Julie sat down on the bed beside him, smoothed his hair, took his hand. “Frank,” she said, “this is your life. Right now, right here. Don’t waste it on what you don’t want to do. Enjoy your partner, the light streaming through the window, your drinks, your music, your visits with your friends. Each day that you have is a gift. If you don’t want your parents here, you don’t have to have them here.”

This is your life. Right now, right here. I tap a handcuff against the arm of my plastic chair. I look at Norman, Harmeet, Tom, their dull, waxy faces. How is it possible to live your life when it has been stolen?

“What time is it?” I ask.

“It’s 5:30,” Norman says.

“I have 5:32,” Harmeet says.

The time between nightfall and supper is the gloomiest, when hunger throbs loudest and our stamina for sitting is at its lowest. “I wonder what’s for supper,” I say. Before the words are out, I want to take them back. I’ve carelessly reminded us of the Christmas dinner we’re missing.

Footsteps in the foyer. I’m suddenly alert. We hear the glass lens of the lantern being lifted, the flick of a lighter. Amber light breaks into the room. Uncle enters with a lantern. “La cahraba, la cahraba,” he says. He sets the lantern down and plops four samoons onto the hostess trolley. He rubs his arms and blows on his hands. He spins suddenly on his heel, quickly disperses our supper, steps back, smiles, rubs his hands together again. “Haji Big, HajiBig,” he says. He turns and is out the door.

My heart quickens. Maybe, finally, the news we’ve been waiting for. A Christmas Day release.

“What flavour of samoon are we having tonight?” I say.

“White rice,” Tom says, opening his samoon and tilting it towards the lantern light.

My spirits dive. I force myself to take a bite. The samoon is fresh and the rice is still warm. Beyond delicious. I practically inhale my supper.

“There you go, chaps, I’m full,” Norman says, handing me the last bit of his samoon. It’s become a ritual. After every meal Norman breaks and shares a piece of his bread. If we object, he always has an excuse ready. “I’ve lots of extra padding,” he’ll say, or “I’m not really a fan of samoon,” or “You just don’t eat as much when you’re an old man.”

I pass it to Harmeet. “This is for you,” I say.

Harmeet passes it to Tom. “This is for you,” he says.

Tom takes a small piece and passes it back to Harmeet. “This is for you,” Tom says.

As he always does, Harmeet passes it back to me without taking a piece for himself. Always I object and always he prevails. Except tonight.

“This is for you too,” I say, refusing the bread.

“I’m full,” he says.

I laugh. “Yeah, full of hot air.” I shake my head. “It’s Christmas. You have to share in the Christmas feast.”

This gets him. He breaks off a piece of bread and eats it. “There. Satisfied?”

“Yes.” I smile. “Very.”

Medicine Man coughs and pinches his nose as he enters the room. Junior and Uncle follow behind, Junior holding two black plastic bags. “How are you, Doctor?” Medicine Man says, a look of concern on his face. We have been pressing the captors for days to bring a course of antibiotics.

Norman lifts the leg of his trouser, turns his foot outwards and touches his calf. “As you can see, it’s quite red and swollen. I believe it is cellulitis,” Norman says.

Medicine Man bends down to look. He gives Norman a box containing capsules of an antibiotic, then to Tom, Valium and antacid. He also has four sweaters that he says come from the market, and a bag the contents of which he doesn’t reveal. Thank you, we say. Medicine Man nods but does not smile. We ask if there’s any news. “Yes,” he says. “We have some negotiation for you. Our negotiator is in the UAE. When he call me, you release. Three day, four day, maybe one week, you go. Not more. I wish you release before now, but this take time. Only time now. You, and you, are safe,” he says, pointing to Harmeet and me.

“What about Norman and Tom?” I say.

“All of you are safe. Just some negotiation and you release, all of you.” He smiles. “You very famous. Especially you and you.” He points to Norman and me. “All of you very famous. When you release, this a whole different life for you. You interview on CNN, NBC—Al Jazeera. You can speak for your cause.” He points at Norman. “Your wife, she is on the TV. She is pleading for you. You,” he says, pointing at Tom, “your daughter is on the TV for you.” To me he says, “For you, your mother is on the TV. And for you,” pointing to Harmeet, “your sister.”

“But we don’t want to be famous,” Norman says. “We want to be free!”

“Do not worry, Doctor. All of you release when I have the order. This only some time. Three day, four day. Not more.” Medicine Man looks at his watch. “I must to go. Tomorrow you have some shower. With the hot water.”

“Shall we have a look at our Christmas presents?” Norman says when they’ve left. He holds the sweaters up one at a time. The first is grey and patterned with black triangles. The collar is wide and floppy. Yuck. Totally depressing. The second is a turtleneck covered with orange and black zigzags. God, I hope I don’t get that one.

The third is slate-blue and grey with a crewneck. Tolerable, but barely. The fourth sweater is a creamy, tight-ribbed knit with a quarter-zipper front and suede shoulders. “Oh, I like that one!” I burst out. I’m immediately embarrassed by my display of greed.

“I don’t care which one I get,” Tom says.

“Neither do I,” Harmeet says.

“Shall we see what’s in the bag?” Norman says. “There’s all kinds of interesting things here. Let’s see—four sets of socks, four boxer shorts, four pairs of tracks pants and four vests.”

“Vests?” I say.

“We call them undershirts in Canada,” Harmeet says.

Norman piles the clothes on the zowagi cube. The track pants are purple, baby blue, lime green and navy blue.

“That’s an interesting assortment of colours,” I say, secretly hoping for navy blue.

“I don’t care which colour I get,” Tom says. He takes the purple. Norman ends up with the baby blue, Harmeet the navy blue and me the green.

“Norman, would you mind passing me a sweater,” I say. “I might as well put one on. I’m cold.”

“How’re you going to do that?” he asks.

“Oh, yeah, of course,” I say. I’d forgotten. You can’t put a sweater on when you’re in handcuffs.

The sweater I like is the first one on the pile. We stack up our chairs, sweep the floor, lay our bedding down. I can’t keep my eyes off it. The first one who takes a sweater will get it. I have to restrain myself from grabbing for it. I’m relieved to see it’s still there when I return from the bathroom. “I’m going to put one of these sweaters on. I’m cold,” I announce, reaching for it. This is not opportunism, I tell myself. Somebody has to take the first one.

There’s a tag. Made in Italy, it says. 50% LANA-WOOLLE-LAINE-WOOL, 50% SETA-SEIDE-SOIE-SILK. I put it on. I revel in the movement of my arms through each sleeve. The sweater has a dry, factory smell. It immediately cuts the chill. The zipper pull-tab is a ring of bronzed metal fashioned into the shape of a heart. That’s funny, I think, it must be a woman’s sweater. I look at the sweater carefully. No, it’s definitely a man’s sweater. How interesting. You’d never catch a man wearing a sweater with a heart-shaped pull-tab in Canada.

The captors turn out the light and go downstairs. As always, it is a relief. The long trek of day is over and I can escape into the sweet oblivion of sleep. My eyes fix on the bracket of light cast onto the ceiling by the lantern.

“I’m sorry, Jim. I need my arm for a second. My head is itchy,” Harmeet says. His voice is apologetic.

“Of course,” I say. My arm follows as he raises his hand to his head. I hear the sound of his hat rubbing against his hair. “Sorry, now I have to adjust the blanket,” he says. I bend my arm so he can pull the blanket up to his chin. This is very important. If the blanket doesn’t cover your neck and shoulders, you freeze.

Harmeet’s movements pull my part of the blanket down. Now I have to make an adjustment. “Sorry, Norman,” I say. “I need my hand for a second.”

There’s a trick to it. You pull the blanket as high as you can, grip it with your chin, then slowly slide your hand under the blanket until it rests beside your hip.

“Good night, gentlemen,” Harmeet says.

The soft droning of a mosquito grows loud and then stops. It’s landed on my cheek. I rub my cheek against my shoulder. The mosquito buzzes away. The blanket falls off my shoulder. “Sorry, Harmeet, I need my hand again,” I say. I tuck the blanket under my chin. The mosquito lands on my cheek again. I sigh and let it feed on me.

How I hate this, I think to myself. I start to pray. O most holy sacred heart, free me. O most holy healing heart, deliver me. O most holy loving heart, open me.

Then it strikes me. The pull-tab on my sweater. You can see through it. It’s open. Just like the Sacred Heart! A giggle ripples through my larynx. Even here the Sacred Heart. Even here.

“What’s so funny?” Harmeet says.

“Oh, nothing,” I say.