Captivity: 118 Days in Iraq and the Struggle for a World Without War - James Loney (2011)
T.S. Eliot was wrong. January is the cruellest month, not April. January is an open wound and a sealed tomb, a door that won’t open, a gate that leads nowhere. We drift like broken bits of Styrofoam in a ceaseless ocean. Our lives are a breath held in suspended animation. There are no words to describe the pain of this waiting. A minute feels like an hour, an hour like a day, a day like a week.
January is named after Janus, the Roman god of gates and doors, beginnings and endings. He’s a two-headed deity with two minds and two faces who sees the past and looks into the future at the same time. He’s the point-in-between that keeps watch as things move from one condition, one time and place to another. He’s the god of change.
Alas, it is a betrayal. Nothing changes. The gates and doors of January never open to us. There is only waiting.
It begins hopefully, with our hearts set on Medicine Man’s most recent promise: “Big Haji in the UAE, negotiations almost finish, money in Baghdad and you release.” Tom, however, cautions us. We’re in the endgame, he says. He says the image of a marathon came to him during one of his middle-of-the-night meditations. Every marathon runner says the last mile is the hardest to run. You’re almost there, but your body has used up everything. They call it hitting the wall, when a person is most likely to injure themselves, drop out or die, and getting across the finish line becomes an excruciating mental game. Now that we’re in the endgame it’s only going to get more difficult, and we’re going to have to work even harder. Except the difference for us is, we have no idea where the finish line will be.
I don’t know whether to be encouraged or despair.
January is cold. I wear every article of clothing I have: socks over socks, underwear over underwear, sweatpants over pants. We huddle together under the big red blanket and wrap our shoulders with some upholstery covers Tom found in the barricade, the curtains we use as part of our bedding. “We’re cold,” we tell the captors. “Soba?” we ask. “La petrol, la petrol,” they say, “Bush najis.”
In January, Tom hits the wall. It happens slowly, almost imperceptibly, the eroding away of the impossible resolve and stoic leadership of those first days. Fear, boredom, gnawing hunger, incessant cold, the lack of sunlight, exercise, time alone—these things accumulate, take their toll. “I can’t get warm,” he tells us in his check-ins. “My body is just not getting enough protein.” “My stomach is full of acid. It just can’t handle this diet.” “I don’t know what’s wrong. I just can’t sleep.” His face becomes grim and skeletal.
Tom’s response is to dig in, fight with our captivity, try and wrestle it to the ground. He exercises constantly, rotating his shoulders, stretching his neck, extending and lifting his legs in his chair. “I want to be able to hit the ground running when we get out of here. I’ve got to do everything I can to keep healthy,” he says. When he’s not exercising, he’s meditating. His long in-and-out breathing punctuates the days like a respirator. He tells us about his experiments with different images, prayers, patterns of breathing. He’s determined to spiritually prevail; it’s a matter of hard work and applying the right technique. “I’m just trying to stay in the present moment. I’m not going to be controlled by negativity,” he insists over and over. It’s a life-and-death struggle: his will against the captivity.
He sees God as a kind of non-personal energy, an energy of love, perhaps best described as light, which suffuses and imbues everything. There is no limit to this energy. Its desire is to grow and expand infinitely. A little bit of this energy, or light, exists in every human being. “There is that of God in everyone,” the Quakers say. Thus, every human being is connected to God and our task is to perfect this connection. Jesus points the way, shows us how to do it. While not the Son of God, Jesus had a unique and privileged understanding of his connection to God, something he achieved through a life of hard spiritual work. We too are capable of perfecting our connection by going all the way in the spiritual life just as Jesus did. In so doing, we will be working towards an increase in the total amount of love energy in the Universe, and the time when everything becomes transformed into love.
Tom’s dread fear is that he’ll be overcome by “negativity” and begin to hate and dehumanize the captors, thus losing everything he’s worked so hard to achieve in the spiritual life. He fights tooth and nail against this, redoubling his efforts each day to pray, meditate and breathe. It’s as if salvation for him is a process of hard work and sacrifice—a project of the will rather than a gift to receive.
It’s not working. He tells us one day that he’s going to take a second Valium. His mind becomes foggy. His perceptions grow rigid, his ideas fixed, he’s less able to incorporate new information, we have to repeat things. “I don’t know what’s wrong,” he tells us. “I’m trying, but I just can’t shake this negativity.” He alternates between long periods of silence and helpless rambling. His judgment is becoming erratic. I begin to worry that he’s losing the ability to cope altogether.
It pains me to see him in this struggle. It seems futile. There’s no way of prevailing against the boredom, the hunger, the uncertainty, the fear. It’s all too big and too much. I concluded early on that there was no way to fight it. Whatever my inner creativity, force of will or capacity to endure, the captivity would always win, like a vast and limitless cloud, insensible to both rage and despair, swallowing whole. The strength to get through would have to come from outside me. Coping was not a matter of projecting my will but of opening myself to receive a gift. The gift of grace. The spontaneous, unmerited self-giving of God. What can never be earned or achieved, only awoken to, discovered, received. God loves you more than you can possibly imagine, I want to tell Tom. Your connection with God is already given. It’s permanent and irrevocable. There’s nothing you need do but fall into God’s arms. Surrender and He will carry you through. I worry his ceaseless striving is causing him to suffer needlessly, that it may lead him to a breakdown and compromise our safety. But how do you say this to a person whom you are handcuffed to, without sounding preachy and judgmental and calling into question every cherished thing they believe?
It comes from the poverty and isolation of his childhood, I think, this unwavering faith in the power of his will to get him through adversity. It was the way he survived, and indeed, triumphed. It almost breaks my heart when he tells us his story. He was born in 1951 in the town of Graysville, Tennessee, the only son of Virginia and Henry, aged forty and fifty-five. His grandparents on both sides had died, and there was no extended family to speak of. When he was five, they moved into a poor Chattanooga, Tennessee, neighbourhood. They were the only white family on the street. His father, a First World War Marine, suffered from emphysema and couldn’t work. Tom believed his father’s health condition was the result of a battlefield gas attack. His days were spent reading and exchanging letters related to a keen interest in an obscure philosopher. His father never played with him; he couldn’t because of his health, Tom said.
The responsibility for keeping the family going fell to his mother, who worked for a beer distribution company. She started to drink as soon as she got home. Tom would spend the first half-hour after school visiting with her—he used to love that time with her, when she was sober—and then he would go to a friend’s house, only to return late in the evening. He was forever arranging things so that he didn’t have to be at home.
Tom’s street dead-ended onto a woods. He took refuge there, spent countless hours wandering, exploring, playing. He loved the trees, the creek, the sun dappling through leaves. It was where he truly felt at home, the only place where he was free.
He found solace in the clarinet. He practised endlessly in his room, and sure enough, had quite a flair for it. When he didn’t have enough money for his private music lesson, the instructor waived the fee. His hard work earned him a music scholarship to Peabody College, where he met Jan Echols in his first year of study. They married at the end of his junior year, shortly after the death of his parents. He graduated in 1973 and successfully auditioned for the Marine Corps Band. The young couple moved to Washington, D.C., and Tom began a life of travelling the world and playing at glittering White House functions. Their daughter, Katherine (called Kassie), was born in 1980, Andrew in 1984. He and Jan divorced in 1990. He spoke of it with regret. “I wasn’t paying attention. I should’ve seen it coming,” he said. After playing his clarinet for four successive presidents, Tom retired in 1993 and trained to become a baker.
He told his story without emotion. It was just what happened, the facts as they were. I wanted to cry, hold him tight, undo what could not be undone.
JANUARY 5 DAY 41
Norman finishes his course of antibiotics. The cellulitis in his leg has disappeared. We’re all very relieved. Medicine Man appears like a fat genie popping out of a bottle. He says there’s been no contact with Big Haji, but this is not a problem, everything is fine, you’ll be released any time now. He reassures us with smiles and shrugs. I want to strangle him. We ask him if he can bring us notebooks to help us pass the time. This is not a problem, he says, the next time I come.
JANUARY 6 DAY 42
It happened on a Monday, three years ago today, the eighth day of the delegation, during my first trip to Iraq. It was an accident that could have happened anywhere. We were on our way back to Baghdad after spending two nights in Basra, a convoy of three white-gleaming, late-model Suburbans travelling at 120 kilometres per hour on a divided highway, no one else on the road. It was a perfect blue-weather morning, already hot and it wasn’t even eight o’clock. None of us was wearing a seat belt. It’s not the done thing in Iraq. The back tire exploded, our vehicle skidded out of control, flipped end over end, and crash-landed on the roof.
I relive the accident frame by frame. The sound of the back tire exploding. The wild fishtailing and long skid towards the shoulder. My body bouncing helplessly up and down. Sand flying in grey light. The Voice: I am with you I am with you. The sudden silence and stop of motion. Everything crazy and upside down, knees jammed into my chest. The calling out, “Is everyone okay?” The slide out through the smashed window. The overturned wreck of the vehicle. Luggage scattered across the desert. The lifting of George Weber’s body onto a stretcher.
Razza (our driver) and I escaped without so much as a scratch. Larry Kehler from Winnipeg and Pat Basler from Wisconsin were cut and bruised. Michele Naar Obed from Duluth broke her nose. Charlie Jackson from San Antonio wrenched his back and cracked his ribs. It would be two weeks before he could travel home. But George … We found his body lying on the sand, thrown clear of the vehicle, his face an unrecognizable mass of blood and brain and bone. He died instantly. Razza was inconsolable.
At the time, George and I were country neighbours. He lived in the town of Chesley, twenty minutes from the farm where I was living. We had done our CPT training together in 2000. He was a retired high school teacher with a dry sense of humour and an unflappable distaste for platitudes, social bromides, pretence of any kind. You would often find him on the other side of an argument, poking holes with his devil’s advocate stick, a boyish grin on his face. “What are you going to do when the bombs start falling?” he’d asked me three weeks before we left for Iraq. He was testing me.
I said something about war not being imminent, but if it did happen the Iraqi government would likely evacuate us in advance of hostilities, as it did in 1991 when the Gulf Peace Team was camped in the desert between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. I tried hard to sound nonchalant, but in truth the prospect terrified me.
A veteran world traveller, George chuckled in reply. “When the war comes, there won’t be any government left to do anything. It’ll be chaos. What you’ll need is two thousand American dollars in your pocket to hire someone to drive you out of the country. But don’t worry.” He smiled. “I’ll look after you.”
Perhaps it is the ineluctable habit of reading back into things, the effort to make sense of the capricious and the absurd. At the airport, waiting for our flight, watching the jets ferry back and forth, George had said, “You know, I’ve lived a long life, and it’s been a good life. Of course, I want to come back, but if I don’t, I’m okay with that.” He laughed. “When I think of some of the taxi trips I’ve taken in Hebron, the way some of them drive, I always think I’m much more likely to die in a car accident than I am doing actual CPT work.”
In Amman he purchased an exquisite silver necklace for his wife Lena, a perfect and beautiful memento of his love. In Baghdad he ordered a tailor-made suit. He said it was “to help the local economy.” It ended up being the suit he was buried in. Then, on that fateful morning, contrary to his established habit of sitting up front with the driver, George sat in the very back in the place where Michele always sat. She couldn’t help ribbing him. “George,” she said, “what’re you doing back here? You should be up front, in the seat of honour!”
“What? Are you kidding?” he joked. “That’s the death seat.”
I always wondered, did George know? Did some part of him, perhaps in the wordless deep of his spirit, intuit what was to happen? I reach out to him with my spirit, the first CPTer to die in the course of duty. Are you watching over us now, George?
JANUARY 8 DAY 44
Uncle stops in to tell us he’s heating up water for a bath, the second of our captivity. While we’re waiting, Norman asks if we’ve seen the gecko. No, I say, what’s that? A little creature, rather like a lizard, but smaller, he explains. Harmeet has seen it too. “I quite like it,” he says. “Sometimes when I’m in the bathroom I just sit and watch it.”
“Yes, it’s rather nice to have a living creature around. Something that’s free, rather unlike ourselves,” Norman says.
We hear sounds in the bathroom, then a loud whack. The door to our room, closed during the day now to keep the heat in, opens. A dead gecko rolls into the room. Uncle appears in the doorway, grinning from ear to ear. He flicks the gecko back into the foyer with the bathroom squeegee and disappears without saying a word. I almost burst into tears.
Uncle has brought us a kerosene heater. For the first time in weeks we are warm. The dark foreboding of January lifts just a little and I start to feel good. Now, if only we could have a cup of tea.
When Harmeet returns from his bath, his long hair is dripping water onto his shoulders. We move the soba in front of him. He leans over his knees and flops his long black mane forward so that it can hang freely in front of the heater. He squeezes the water out of his hair and combs the tangled strands apart with his hands. It takes almost an hour for it to dry. Not long after that, Nephew shuts off the kerosene heater. “Bush najis. La petrol,” he says.
We ask every day for the use of the heater. Each time, they say the same thing: “Bush najis, la petrol.” Finally relenting, they put the heater on for a couple of hours in the evening before we go to bed. The blue dancing kerosene flames introduce a tiny bit of cheer into our lives and ease the chill out of our bodies for a while.
In a fit of boredom one day, Uncle pulls a prehistoric electric heater out of the barricade. It has no plug. He strips the sheathing off the cord with his teeth and inserts the exposed wires into an electrical outlet. With a sudden electric hum, some snapping and sparking, the coils come glowing to life. The room fills with the dry smell of burning dust. Uncle shakes his head and points at the electrical outlet. It’s dangerous, he says.
JANUARY 10 DAY 46
There are two Eids in the Muslim calendar. Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan and the month-long discipline of fasting during daylight hours. Eid al-Adha commemorates Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael (in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the story of Abraham and Isaac). Today is Eid al-Adha. To celebrate, Junior solemly announces that he is going to cook.
He delivers lunch on an ornate metal tray—a plate of rice and a bowl of thick lentil stew—and sets it down on the zowagi cube with a restrained flourish of pride. My eyes fix greedily on the food. Nephew instructs us to move our chairs around the cube. I grab a spoon off the tray and note with relief that it is clean. I’m ready to start eating. Junior shakes his head, waves his finger, points towards the bathroom. We have to wait for Tom, he says. Today is an occasion, it seems; proper manners are required.
When we’re all gathered, Nephew smiles and points towards heaven. We’re starting the meal with a prayer. He repeats a phrase over and over: “Bismillah al rahman al rahim.” In the Name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. The first words of the Quran, Tom tells us later. When we’ve each taken a turn stumbling our way through the words, Nephew signals for us to begin. Junior watches closely as we take our first bites. The stew is rich and warm and soul-nourishingly good. We express our gratitude with lip-smacking hmmms, nods, shokrens. Junior beams.
Tom and Harmeet shovel food into their mouths with tunnel-vision urgency. I watch with dismay as the lentils and rice start to disappear. I measure and count compulsively: for every spoonful Norman and I take, Tom and Harmeet take two. I feel as if I’m at a feeding frenzy at the zoo. If I want my fair share, I’m going to have to compete, match them spoon for spoon. I slow down, eat less, smile. Inside, I rage.
Some rice falls onto the floor from Norman’s spoon. “Najis! Haram!” Junior cries, waving his arms angrily. Norman ignores the reprimand and keeps on eating. Junior scowls, picks up the rice and carefully puts it on the tray.
“You never let food fall on the floor where it can be stepped on,” Tom says to Norman. “It’s considered disrespectful.” But then some rice falls off Tom’s spoon. He doesn’t notice. Junior’s eyes dart to the floor. I pick up the rice and put it on the tray.
“Najis,” Junior scowls contemptuously. He points to Tom’s left hand and scolds him. “La, la,” he says. In Arabic culture, the left hand is considered unclean and never used at table or in greeting.
“It’s because I’m left-handed,” Tom says. Junior glares and Tom switches the spoon to his right hand.
Junior points at me. “Shoo? What this?” He apes the way I’ve been eating by taking small bites from an imaginary spoon and chewing with exaggerated delicacy. “La Iraqi,” he says disdainfully. He points at the others. Eat quickly, he seems to be telling me, with gusto like them, this is the Iraqi way.
“Iraqi, Iraqi,” Nephew says, nodding in vigorous support.
I pat my stomach and smile. “Akeel good. Shokren,” I say. Junior shakes his head irritably. I don’t mind. If the way we eat matters so much to them, it means they aren’t planning to kill us any time soon.
I tell myself it isn’t Harmeet and Tom’s fault. Hunger is a fierce, indomitable force. It gnaws at you, possesses you like a demon, reduces you to your basest instincts. They were simply hungry. But, try as I might, I can’t talk myself down. The rage won’t stop. I swallow hard. Saying something means breaking the unspoken rule that has governed us rigidly since the first day of our captivity. We work valiantly at it, in every interaction, with generosity, respect, sensitivity to feelings, asking for permission, offering apology for imposition, restraining emotion. It is a relentless discipline. Avoid conflict at all times and in every instance. Our lives depend on it.
Miraculously and marvellously, it has worked for the most part, but now I am chafing against this silent imperative. I can’t do it anymore. Yes, the prospect of an uncontrolled conflict fills me with dread, but unless we can find a constructive way to deal with it, someone is going to explode, and it most likely will to be me. I clear my throat. The time has come.
First, the carefully prepared opening statement. “I’m sorry to have to bring this up. I debated all day about whether or not I should. I tried really hard to let go of it, but I just wasn’t able to.” Then the benefit of the doubt. “You may not have been aware of it, but …” The naming of names. “… Tom and Harmeet …” And the point of no return. My breath catches. I hesitate. Maybe I shouldn’t. Anger forces the words out. “You ate really fast and took more than your fair share. I felt like I had to race to keep up with you. I never want to be put in this position again.”
Tom apologizes right away. Harmeet, stricken, mortified, shrinks into his chair. In some way I hadn’t anticipated, my words have wounded him. “It’s all right,” I say, reaching desperately for some way to take back what I’ve said. “It’s easy to happen. We’re all so hungry.”
Harmeet doesn’t answer. He can’t. His silence feels like a lash. Tom throws me a lifeline. How can we prevent this from happening in the future? he asks. Norman suggests dividing the serving into four. We don’t need to be slavish about being fair, I say, as long as we’re attentive and eat at the pace of the slowest person. Tom promises to pay more attention.
“Thanks, Tom,” I say. For being so gracious.
Harmeet disappears into a shroud of silence. Tom, Norman and I converse in fits and starts of small talk. We hobble through the day like a dog with a broken leg. For the first time in our captivity we go to sleep without saying good night to each other. I toss and turn all night in self-reproach.
JANUARY 11 DAY 47
Morning exercise. Harmeet’s face is ashen. He avoids my eyes. I wonder if he will bring me a glass of water, as he always does, when he finishes his turn in the bathroom. He doesn’t. I approach him in the middle of some sit-ups. “I’m sorry,” I tell him. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“No, I’m the one at fault,” he whispers. “It’s me.” I barely hear him. He turns onto his stomach and begins a round of push-ups. He has nothing more to say.
It’s going to be a long day, I tell myself.
Uncle enters the room with a big smile on his face. “Melabas, melabas,” he says, pinching the cuff of his shirt. We don’t understand. “Frook hind. Frook hind.” He pulls at his shirt, sniffs it, makes a face, makes a whirling gesture with his hands.
Our faces break into joyous smiles. He’s going to let us wash our clothes! My imagination leaps wildly. Does this means we’re going to be released for Eid?
There was no Eid release, but we did get to do laundry. It is draped all over the barricade now and hanging on the banisters in the foyer. It was a relief to be handcuff free for a while and doing something useful, hands working vigorously in warm-water balm, a relief to get away from Harmeet’s funereal mood. He didn’t say a word all day.
It is during our check-in that he finally breaks his silence. “About what happened yesterday … I … what I did … that’s not … my grandfather went through much worse than this. He would never have done what I did. He went hungry to save somebody else, and I took more than my share.”
Harmeet is referring to the dark, famished months when his grandfather was a prisoner of war in a Pakistani concentration camp. A veteran sergeant in his mid-thirties, the same age as Harmeet is now, he took two Sikh soldiers under his wing. No more than boys, he counselled them when they were losing their faith, nursed them through sickness and fed them his rations to keep them alive. It is the singular act of solidarity and sacrifice that governs Harmeet’s moral universe. When I confronted him for taking more than his share from the common dish, something he hadn’t been aware of, he went into a spiral of shame. He had failed the example of his grandfather, and therefore failed everything he had ever hoped to be.
When the captors depart with the lantern, and all is finished for this day, Harmeet’s nocturnal benediction returns. “Good night, gentlemen.”
“Good night, Harmeet,” we say. He cannot see, but in the dark I am smiling. Harmeet has found his way back to us. All is right with the world again.
JANUARY 14 DAY 50
Nephew is standing in the doorway, all smiles. “Big Haji in Jordan,” he says excitedly.
“Faloos, faloos,” Uncle says, bending over our wrists, locking us up for the day. He puts one hand on top of the other, slides his palm forward and lifts his hand into the air. “Schoooo,” he hisses, mimicking the sound of a jet taking off. “Canadi, Britannia, Amriki.” The two men leave.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Norman says.
“I’m just trying to stay in the present moment,” Tom says.
“It’s probably just another false alarm,” I say.
“We can’t believe anything they tell us,” Harmeet says.
But we do. They bait their hooks with little morsels of hope and we bite down hard. It’s a paradox. The days when we know nothing will happen, when we know there is no chance of being released—these days are easier. Much, much easier, in fact. We float and frolic in the stories we tell, the games we invent, the riddles we pose to each other. On those days we swim in pulsing currents, surf on curling waves. At the end of such days we say to each other, “You know, today went by quickly,” or “Today wasn’t too bad.”
But on days like today, when there is even the faintest hope of release, time grinds to a halt. Every minute and every hour becomes a piercing lance. Today, tomorrow, any day. I get the call and you release. Not long now. Just some small negotiation. Such days move slower than glaciers and pass through us with the screaming agony of kidney stones. When! when! when! our minds and bodies cry. We obsess, speculate, hypothesize, argue about contingencies. Now isn’t soon enough. We burn in the fire of our expectations.
Present moment, present moment. It sends me to the brink every time he says it. But Tom’s right. There are moments when the four of us, all at the same time, slip out of our handcuffs and chains and lose ourselves in the story we’re telling, the game we’re playing, the riddle we’re solving. I call it breaking into the present. It seems to only happen when we let go of all expectation. Then the walls around us disappear and we’re simply four friends sitting together enjoying each other’s company. We could be drinking beer on a front porch or pitching horseshoes on a summer day. We have entered the Palace of Now, the only place where we are truly free.
JANUARY 16 DAY 52
“You know, last night I had this dream,” Tom tells us during his check-in. “We were sitting here in the room and Junior came in. His face was a mask of evil. He said somebody has been sold. One of you has to go. He had a gun in his hand. We looked at each other. Nobody moved. ‘Come on,’ he said, ‘one of you must decide.’ Then I stood up. ‘I’ll go. I’ll be the one.’
“That’s when I woke up. My heart was pounding and I couldn’t get back to sleep. I began to think, over and over in my mind, could I do that? Could I really do that? And it struck me, you guys are my friends. Yeah, I could do that, I said to myself. I really think I could do that.”
No one speaks. For a moment I’m angry. Why are you telling us this? I wonder. I steal a look at Tom out of the corner of my eye. His face is open, searching, reaching. He wants some response. I don’t know what to say. Tom’s nobility astounds and shames me. This, in fact, is a scenario I’ve secretly tested in my imagination. Would I be willing to offer my life in the same way? I have to force myself to admit it: no, probably not.
Someone coughs. Norman continues on with his check-in. Our lack of acknowledgement feels like a betrayal. We are captives indeed.
JANUARY 18 DAY 54
“Haji kabir in Baghdad,” Nephew announces. We are confused. Is he referring to Medicine Man or the negotiator? He puts his hand above his head to indicate someone with greater authority. It’s the negotiator. What about, Haji Shwaya? we ask—Medicine Man. Can you call him and ask him to come? It’s been thnein asbooah. Two weeks. Nephew says okay and leaves. He returns a few minutes later, pointing to his watch. “Haji one o’clock in house. News good.”
We wait on pins and needles, our ears leaping at every sound. Could this be the Phone Call, the Footstep, the Voice that brings The News? One o’clock comes and goes. At two o’clock we hear the kitchen door open and close, the rattle of the gate, the arrival of a car. Medicine Man enters the house on a wave of laughter. Voices collect at the bottom of the stairs. Finally. His shoes click briskly in the stairway. He crosses the foyer in five steps. He’s in a hurry. “News good,” Medicine Man says. “One week and you release. We have some negotiation and you release. All of you. The Canadians first.”
“What is involved with these negotiations?” Norman asks.
“Negotiation with your government. The Canadians are no problem. The British have some little problem. The Americans, they have some problem. They not negotiate. Anything else?”
I ask about the notebooks. “I am sorry. I forget. I bring for you.” He slips out the door and is gone.
“Oh God, not another week,” I moan.
“At least a week,” Tom says. He’s gently reminding me. “Canadians first.” I’m jolted by shame. I was so preoccupied with my own release that I failed to see the devastating implication.
“Hey, look what I found!” Harmeet exclaims. He’s holding the nail he found stuck in his shoe before Christmas.
I stare as though it has magical powers. “Where was it?” I ask.
“Buried in my pocket.”
“The whole time?” I try not to sound suspicious.
“It must’ve been. I found it when I switched back to wearing my track pants this morning.”
I ask him for it. “Remember that movie,” I say, “how they opened their handcuffs with a piece of wire? Let’s try it!” No one says anything. “How does it look, Tom? Coast clear?”
“Yup. Nothing’s happening that I can hear,” Tom says.
“We can use a little amusement,” Norman says.
It is an act of defiance that both thrills and terrifies me. I stick the nail into the keyhole of my left handcuff and start digging. “Any joy?” Norman asks.
“I’m afraid not. Why don’t you give it a try.” Norman inserts the nail into his handcuff and pushes counter-clockwise, increasing the force until his hand shakes. “Be careful of the mechanism,” I say. “It’ll be difficult to explain if the handcuffs suddenly don’t work.” Norman continues with less force. “Pull up on the handcuff,” I say to Harmeet. He pulls, there’s a click and the handcuff releases.
“Joy!” Norman says.
I can hardly contain my excitement. I have to try again. I turn the nail counter-clockwise and pull on the ratchet. It opens like a charm. I can’t believe it! I examine the handcuff carefully. The design is startlingly simple. The ratchet passes through a housing and catches against a spring-loaded pawl. The key turns against the pawl and the ratchet swings free.
“It’s quite strange,” Harmeet says, “how the nail was sticking into my shoe. Do you think someone could have stuck it there deliberately?” The idea of a secret ally is exhilarating.
“If I had to pick somebody, it would be Nephew,” Tom says, as if reading my mind.
My body shivers with excitement—or is it fear? We now have the capacity to escape.
Tom is keen. Unlocking our handcuffs will help him to sleep better. Norman is too. He’ll be able to turn more easily onto his side and stand up to stretch in the middle of the night without disturbing me. Harmeet thinks it’s worth trying. I don’t. It’s an unnecessary risk, I tell them. We’re gambling away the possibility of escape for the luxury of a better night’s sleep. My voice is hot. If they discover the nail, they’ll take it away. We should only use it for trying to escape.
“Tom and Norman are chained up,” Harmeet says. “We can’t all escape.” We might figure something out in the future, I say. Harmeet disagrees. “We have to deal with our circumstances as they are in the present,” he says. “It’s not an option for everybody, and I’m not going to try until it is. But since we have the nail, we might as well use it to make things easier.”
“Maybe there’s some way we can pick the locks,” I say lamely. No one answers. I have to make a choice: I can share the risks faced by Norman and Tom by saying yes, or I can protect the possibility of escape for myself by saying no. I’m willing to try it, I say, but we have to minimize the risk of getting caught.
“Do you have the Instrument of Grace?” Norman says to Harmeet.
“The Instrument of Grace?” Harmeet asks.
“Why, your little nail, of course!”
Harmeet chuckles. “Yeah, it’s right here in my pocket.”
Norman opens his handcuff in a matter of seconds. The rest of us struggle, but we manage. We practise locking up quickly in the event the captors come to check on us. The fastest we get is twenty-three seconds.
I object. That’s too slow. Tom says he’ll block the door. I say the captors will know there’s something going on right away. Tom says he’ll pretend he’s using the hamam bottle. What about the sound of the handcuffs clicking closed? We practise closing them as quietly as we can. It’s still too loud, I say. Tom says he’ll pretend to have a coughing fit. I’m not convinced. Tom insists it’ll be okay. Norman and Harmeet really want to do it. It’s against my better judgment, but in the end I agree. We sleep with our handcuffs unlocked.
I love it—the ability to cradle my head, swat mosquitoes with impunity, rest my hands on my chest or move them wherever I please. But I don’t sleep. I’m braced, girded, ready to move at the first sign of danger. I toss and turn in an agony of questions. Are we sealing our doom, Harmeet and I, by not acting to escape? What happens if we do try to escape and we’re successful? How will we find someone to help us? What if this is an insurgent neighbourhood? Would we be jumping out of a frying pan into a fire? Where would we hide? A trash bin? Someone’s garden? A construction site? What do we do then—flag down a car, wait for a military convoy, run into a store or an apartment building? Will this put innocent people in jeopardy? And if we do find someone to help us, how do we explain our situation? I don’t know how to call the police—I don’t even know the team’s phone number! And what about Norman and Tom? The consequences could be fatal. On the other hand, isn’t it better to spare at least one family terrible grief than have all four of us perish? But then, if we try it and fail, there is the prospect of merciless beatings, excruciating punishment, death. It’s a zero-sum game. We can wait it out and risk getting killed, or risk getting killed in trying to escape.
The night passes in a merry-go-round of buts spiralling around what-ifs. It’s a relief when daylight creeps into the room. “Are you guys sleeping? It’s starting to get light,” I whisper. “We better put our handcuffs back on.”
It is only when my wrists are safely handcuffed again that I fall fast asleep.
JANUARY 20 DAY 56
The voices—loud, excited, running into each other—move to the bottom of the stairway. It sounds like a party. The voices subside. Footsteps in the foyer. Junior and Uncle appear. “T’al wiyaya,” Junior says. “Downstairs.”
Uncle unlocks us. I scramble to put my shoes on. I’m irritated with myself. I should be ready, always ready. You know neither the day nor the hour.
“La shoes. Come on,” Junior says. My chest tightens like a drum. Where are they taking us? What’s going to happen to us?
We follow Junior through the dark foyer and down the stairs. Nephew, waiting at the bottom, directs us to turn left through an open door. The room we enter is grand, at least fifteen by twenty feet. The walls are plum grey and crowned with butterscotch-coloured mouldings. A ceiling fan hangs between two cascading chandeliers. The floor is covered with a hard-worn Turkish rug. The walls opposite the door and to my left are banked with cobalt drapes that reach from floor to ceiling.
There’s noise, confusion, people everywhere at once. Video Man is at the door holding a camera. He grips my arm and leads me towards three plastic lawn chairs lined against a blank expanse of wall. He turns me around and pushes me into a chair. He grabs Harmeet’s arm and ushers him towards the chair next to me. Tom is next. “No, I can stand,” he objects, pointing to the empty chair. “For the Doctor. Old man. Kabir, kabir.”
“Ogod!” Video Man barks, face reddening. Tom offers to get a chair from upstairs.
“Sit down,” Junior orders, jabbing Tom in the chest with his index finger.
“Chair for Norman. Doctor kabir,” Tom says.
“Sit down,” I hear another voice say. I look up. It’s Medicine Man. He takes a step towards Tom. His eyes are blazing.
I’m incredulous. Tom—what’re you doing?! “It’s their show,” I try to warn him. “Just sit down.”
Junior takes hold of Tom’s shoulders and forces him to sit. Video Man’s face and gestures are urgent, almost frantic. He points to Norman and Tom. Medicine Man shrugs his shoulders and steps back. Video Man is clearly in charge. He pulls me out of the chair and leads me to a bed heaped with clutter located against the wall. He wants me to sit here instead. I move a plate encrusted with food to make space to sit down. He brings Harmeet to sit next to me.
Then I notice the little boy. He is leaning against a second bed located against the curtain-covered wall to my right, fingers in his mouth, staring at the floor.
Norman has been standing in the doorway to my left. Uncle instructs him to sit down in the chair next to Tom. Norman doesn’t understand. “Imshee,” Uncle says. When Norman doesn’t move, Uncle grabs him by the lapels and jerks him towards the chair like a rag doll. Norman’s eyes are wide, startled, full of fear. Medicine Man touches Uncle’s arm. Uncle lets go with a laugh, fixes Norman’s lapels and steps back.
“I am sorry, Doctor,” Medicine Man says to Norman. “The big man, he is joking. Always he is joking.”
Video Man shoves sticks of gum into Tom’s and Norman’s mouths and lectures them in Arabic. They nod blankly.
Medicine Man steps towards us. He looks pressured. “It’s good to see you,” I say.
He rolls his eyes and exhales. “We have nothing but problems. The border is closed now for two days. Mooshkilla! Our negotiator cannot get back to Baghdad.”
Medicine Man turns back to Norman and Tom. I return my attention to the little boy. Junior is squatting beside him, talking quietly. He turns towards us and points. The boy looks at us cautiously. Our eyes meet. I smile and wink. The boy looks away. “Zane, zane,” I hear Junior say. He takes the boy’s hand and brings him towards us. The boy hangs back. Junior smiles. I smile.
“Good, good,” he says to the boy, shaking my hand to show I’m a friend. He encourages him to do the same. I hold out my hand. His hand moves towards me for a brief moment, but then he pulls it away and runs back to the other bed. Junior shrugs his shoulders.
My attention shifts back to Tom and Norman. Video Man is standing in front of them, gesturing, castigating. “We don’t understand,” Tom says. “La Arabi.”
Medicine Man steps in. “You speak to the camera that you are in good health, you have the good treatment, everything is okay. Just like before. In a high voice. You speak to the camera for the immediate withdrawal of the American soldier. You must to speak against the occupation. That is all. Do you understand?” Tom nods.
As Medicine Man is talking, Video Man approaches us. “La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammadu Rasul Allah,” he says. There is no god but God, Muhammad is the Messenger of God. His eyes roll piously upwards and he points his right index finger towards heaven. He searches our faces intently. “This Quran. Allah wahid. Allah wahid.” Video Man looks heavenward with open palms. An ecstatic look flashes across his face. “Allah,” he mumbles reverently, as if praying. He makes the sign of the cross on his chest. “Mozane. El messiahiyea mozane. No good,” he says, his eyes flashing hate.
A cold chill sweeps through my body. Medicine Man calls to him. Video Man turns away abruptly.
“What the hell was that?” I whisper to Harmeet.
“Disturbing,” he says.
Video Man is standing on a chair, pointing his camera at Tom. “Okay, you begin,” Medicine Man says to Tom. Tom faces the camera and takes a breath. He speaks calmly, authoritatively. Medicine Man signals Norman. As he begins to speak, he is interrupted by the baleful mewing of a cat. Somebody giggles. Medicine Man barks at Uncle.
Uncle parts the curtain and taps gently on the window. “Shhhhh,” he says, putting his finger to his mouth. The cat stops mewing. Uncle turns from the window and stands with his hands behind his back, a soldier at ease.
“Again,” Medicine Man says to Norman. When Norman is finished, Harmeet and I exchange places with him and Tom. As Video Man stands scowling in front of us, behind him Junior is bending down to the little boy. The boy is restless, wants to move about the room. Junior lifts him onto his knee and whispers in his ear. The little boy nods his head and settles obediently.
Video Man speaks to us in Arabic. “La Arabi, la Arabi,” we say. He turns to Medicine Man in frustration.
“He want you to say that you have the good treatment,” Medicine Man interprets. “You must to beg the Canadian government, the Canadian people, to release you. And you must to beg the Pope for your release, say to him he must to withdraw from Iraq.”
Harmeet and I look at each other. “The Pope?” I ask. “What do you mean?”
“You must to beg the Pope for you release. He tell me the Pope have some forces here.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I say, shaking my head. “The Pope doesn’t have any forces here. It will just look silly if I say that.”
The two men confer. Video Man looks at me sharply. Medicine Man turns back to us and waves his hand. “It does not matter. Just your government then.” When we’ve both made our speeches, he signals us to stand.
“At least I didn’t say ‘thank you to our captors’ this time,” Harmeet says in a low voice.
“You did great,” I say. “An Oscar-winning performance.”
Medicine Man and Video Man confer. Video Man issues instructions to Junior and Uncle. Junior moves the three chairs out of the way and Uncle lines the four of us up against the wall. I hope they offer us a cigarette before they shoot us, I think.
Video Man stands on the bed where we were sitting. He looks into the camera, points, gives directions to Medicine Man. Medicine Man gives directions to Junior. Junior moves us together until our shoulders touch.
“This video is to show you live,” Medicine Man tells us. “Our negotiator have some meeting and he give this video to show you live. Now you just to say your name and the day. That is all. You know the day today?”
“January 20,” Tom says.
We each state our name and the date. Video Man pans over us one last time. Confusion immediately follows. Video Man grabs Tom’s arm, Junior chases the little boy, Uncle talks to Norman. I step towards Medicine Man to ask if he can tell us more about the negotiations. He’s stressed, wipes his brow. “Just some small thing. I think you—and you”—he points to Harmeet and me—“you release in four, maybe five days. We have some exchange of money, file closed and go.”
I am just about to ask another question when Video Man grabs my arm and hustles me out of the room. It is all I can do to stop myself from smashing him in the face. He releases me at the bottom of the stairs. I go back to our room and sit in my chair.
JANUARY 25 DAY 61
Our third bath day. Uncle fires up the kerosene heater for us. Life is not so bad. We’re warm for a change and I feel human again. After many days of requests, Uncle has finally brought scissors so we can trim our moustaches. It’s been driving me crazy, the growth of beard over my lip, the way it gets in my mouth every time I eat. And Harmeet has news, both good and bad. The bad news is that the door to the roof is locked. Harmeet snuck up the stairs during laundry, when the captors weren’t looking. The door is secured with a heavy padlock, he says. There’s no way to open it. As for the good news, Nephew has told him there’s a prisoner exchange under way. Four hundred and fifty Iraqi detainees for the four of us.
It seems too fantastic to believe. Still, I can’t help myself. “That would make this worth it,” I say. “If our kidnapping results in the release of a few hundred Iraqis.” The hope of release burns in me all day like an out-of-control wildfire.
JANUARY 28 DAY 64
Medicine Man comes to see us with news. “This very secret,” he tells us. “The Americans will not negotiate for Tom. So we make the prisoner exchange instead. They release 450 of our men, four of our womens. We are just waiting now for two of our womens to be release, and one of our men in the U.S.—Omar Abdel-Rahman. He is the blind sheik. The Americans never say they make this release because of our negotiation. They say this is normal, we just to make the normal release. But it is not. This is our negotiation.” He pauses for breath. “The Canadian money is not a problem, but it not in Baghdad. The negotiations are complete, except for some money from Jack Straw. The British are cold. Only some time now. One day, two day, and go. Canadian money in Baghdad and go. File closed.”
“What about the notebooks?” I say.
He hits his forehead and laughs. “I am sorry. I am bad for this. I bring for you. They are just in my car.” Then he is gone.
“One day, two day, and go,” Harmeet says, imitating Medicine Man.
“File closed,” I say.
We dissect, analyze, parse every word. It appears they’re trying to roll a three-pronged negotiation—a prisoner exchange for Tom masked as a routine security-detainee discharge with separate British and Canadian ransom payments—into one release package. It seems like a coherent narrative, but there are two ominously discordant notes. “The British are cold,” Medicine Man said. What does that mean? And the release of Rahman-whoever-he-is. That’s an unrealistic demand. They’ll never agree to that. (Upon our release I learn he was convicted for his involvement in the 1993 al Qaeda bombing of the World Trade Center.)
Tom is convinced this is good news. He latches on like an acrobat gripping a trapeze bar. He’s so convinced, he decides to make a confession. “I didn’t want to say anything until I was sure things were going to work out. I didn’t want you to worry. I’ve been feeling sick about it, that I’ve put you all in danger. Maybe you saw it on the table when they filmed us with our ID. But when they kidnapped us, I had my military retirement card on me.”
I turn to look at him. First I’m shocked, astounded, flabbergasted, then sick with dread. This is bad. Very very bad. “Why would you have done that?” I ask, straining to keep my voice even.
“I know, I’m sorry, it was stupid. I always thought it would be helpful if we came to an American checkpoint or had to deal with military officials. The team warned me against doing it, but I thought it might really help us sometime.”
That’s how he could be. Maxine will tell me a story later. Restless and a little stir-crazy after weeks of confinement in the apartment, Tom decided one evening after dark to gather some soil from the boulevard in front of the apartment so he could grow some plants on the roof. She told him not to. Military vehicles routinely passed there. Anyone watching would think he was planting an IED—Improvised Explosive Device. He could be shot on sight. But Tom, having made up his mind, did it anyway. “We all did things like that,” Maxine said. “You had to sometimes. It was a way of protesting against all the restrictions the war imposed on you. But that … that was going too far.”
JANUARY 29 DAY 65
A month after her kidnapping, she declared on an audiotape that she had changed her name to Tania and joined her captors as a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Two weeks after that, she was photographed with an M1 carbine robbing a bank. A year and a half after that, she was arrested by the FBI in an SLA safe house.
I think about her constantly—Patty Hearst, the 19-year-old American newspaper heiress and socialite who became the 1974 poster child for Stockholm Syndrome, what they call it when a hostage becomes emotionally attached to her abductors and sympathizes with their aims, even to the point of defending them against law enforcement officials.
It disgusts me every time I hold out my wrist for the captors. Here, go ahead, lock me up, I don’t mind. I feel like a trick poodle jumping through a hoop. I am making it easier for them. Easier to negotiate their goddamned ransom, buy more weapons, kill more people. Sometimes, in a storm of rage, I say to myself, No, enough of this, I will not play your game anymore. Release me or kill me, you must decide. Until you do, I am taking my clothes off and I am going to sit here, naked, refusing everything—your food, your chains, your instructions. I would rather die than co-operate with murder.
Perhaps if I were stronger, more courageous, had more faith, this is what I would do. But I don’t. Day after day I hold out my wrist, eat their food, follow their instructions. I want to live too much. It becomes a kind of dance. Where to draw the line? How much can I co-operate without becoming an accomplice to my own captivity? It’s a constant tension. I sometimes wonder if I, if we, have become like Patty Hearst, victims of Stockholm Syndrome who have internalized subservience for the sake of survival. I must continually remind myself: no, we are not the same. They are the captors and enslavers; we are the captives and slaves. Until the day our freedom is restored, we are ipso facto locked in existential combat. There is no escaping it.
Last night during lock-up, Uncle asked Harmeet to go and get one of the chains in the foyer. Without thinking, Harmeet went to get it. This was crossing the line. “Harmeet,” I said to him later, as gently as I could, “I know it’s a risk to say no when they ask for something, but I’ll never do it. They’re the ones holding us captive. It’s their chain. If they want to lock us up, okay, I don’t have any control over that, but I’ll never go and get their chain. And I don’t think you should either. There’s a line between us and them. We have to always remember that or else we’ll lose ourselves in the captivity.”
I was right, he admitted. He hadn’t thought about it. He won’t do it again.
Tonight, Harmeet is put to the test. Uncle is unusually playful at the start. He provokes Junior with pinching and jostling, grabs him in a headlock, forces him onto his knees by twisting his ear. When Norman passes him on his return from the bathroom—slowly, cautiously, holding on to fixed objects, so different from the vigorous man I met in Amman two months ago—Uncle steps towards him and shakes his keys in his face. “Najis,” he taunts elfishly. “La hubis.” Norman eases himself onto his knees, moving as if in slow motion. “Hurry up,” Uncle says, waving his hands with comedic urgency. Refusing to be hurried, Norman turns onto his back and stretches out his leg. “Najis,” Uncle says, gripping Norman’s ankle with the chain.
“Ow!” Norman protests. Uncle laughs and yanks Norman’s leg. “That’s my leg!” Norman cries out, his voice breaking with anger.
Uncle sits down, chortling as if this is the funniest thing. He points to the foyer. “Zengeel, zengeel,” he says, ordering Harmeet to go and get the other chain.
Harmeet shakes his head. “This haram.”
“Haram?” Uncle says, getting up from his chair, indignant and threatening. He clamps a giant hand around Harmeet’s crossed forearms and squeezes as hard as he can. “Haram?” he repeats, hoping to force Harmeet to cry out in pain. Harmeet looks at him, silent as a stone. Uncle lets go and reaches for Norman’s chain, but Norman pulls it away before he can grab it. “Najis,” Uncle cries. Junior slaps his knee with laughter.
“Haram!” Norman says, his voice a foot stomping down. “Old man. I’m an old man!”
Uncle tosses his keys at Junior and storms out of the room. After this, the najis treatment ends.
“Uncle is definitely angry,” Tom says, reflecting later on Uncle’s antics during lock-up.
“What do you mean?” I say. We do it all the time, analyze and parse our captors’ moods, their glances and gestures, what they say and don’t say, alert for any sign of danger or release. We test and formulate different hypotheses gleaned from our various perceptions and understandings, always searching for the most accurate interpretation. We have to get it right. The smallest misunderstanding could be lethal.
“He’s always saying it,” Tom says. “He’s angry because there’s no hubis.” La hubis. No money. Uncle says it every night. Sometimes it’s an explanation, sometimes it’s a tease or a promise. Yes, I think, Uncle was angry, but it wasn’t about ransom money. It was because Norman and Harmeet defied him. I try to explain this, but Tom refuses to consider any other explanation. He insists it’s because there is no money. I’m perplexed, irritated, concerned. His perceptions are becoming more and more fixed, his mind closed, his judgment askew. If he is unable to adjust his thinking in this matter of little importance, what will happen in a matter of life and death?
JANUARY 30 DAY 66
I’m awakened by a shaft of lantern light pouring into the room. We’re unlocked! My body goes instantly to red alert. It takes me a second to realize it’s only Tom, kneeling at the edge of our bed, readying himself to pee into the hamam bottle. There’s a sudden clattering sound. “Sorry,” he whispers. He’s knocked the bottle over. I hold my breath and listen intently for the captors.
I hear Tom removing the lid of the pop bottle, a soft click as he places it on the floor, the brittle crinkling of plastic, urine streaming into a bottle. “I’m sorry to disturb you like this,” he says. “It must be the acid in my stomach.” I wince. His voice is too loud.
“It’s okay, you don’t have to apologize,” Harmeet whispers. Tom closes the door and settles back under his covers.
A sudden rush of fear. I’m not sure. I think I can hear something, a noise from downstairs. Every cell in my body listens. I hear rustling. Tom is standing up. I’m about to say something when there’s a sudden racket of chain hitting the floor.
“Tom!” I whisper fiercely.
“It’s all right,” he says. “The chain’s all knotted up.”
Please, Tom—be quiet!
He cracks the door open again. “I need a bit of light. The chain’s all knotted up.” I hear it again. Now I’m sure. Voices, movement at the bottom of the stairs, very soft. I lift my head from the pillow. Another thud of chain falling. I can feel the vibration of it in the floor.
“Tom!” I hiss.
“It’s all right. I’m just unknotting the chain.” His voice is much too loud.
“LISTEN!” I whisper-shout. He drops the chain again. “TOM! STOP!” I hiss.
He stops. I listen. Nothing. After a minute I hear a door closing. The danger has passed, thank God. I rest my head back on the pillow, shaking with rage.
“Najis!” Junior says, pinching his nose as he enters the room. He rushes to open the window and turns to us with an angry gale of Arabic. The contempt on his face tells me everything I need to know.
Uncle stands at the door dressed in civvies: collared shirt and suit jacket—even shoes. He talks briefly with Junior before leaving. Junior kicks off his sandals, steps onto our bed and bends down to unlock Norman’s ankle, his face writhing with disgust. When the lock clicks open, Junior stands above him with his hands on his hips, lecturing. He unlocks the rest of us and leaves in a huff.
“It looks like somebody has some time off,” Harmeet says, referring to Uncle’s brief appearance. “My arms are bruised where he grabbed me.”
“He promised we could do laundry today,” Tom says. “I’ll check that with Junior. It’ll break up the day.”
“I don’t know, Tom. He seemed pretty grouchy this morning,” Harmeet warns.
“It won’t hurt to have a try,” Tom says.
Harmeet asks Tom how he slept. Not well, he answers, even with the medicine. He doesn’t think it’s working. I look at him closely. He’s glassy-eyed, disconnected, moving like he’s under water. He asks if he can use the bathroom first. Go for it, we say.
I gather Harmeet and Norman together. I’m really concerned about Tom, I say. It’s like he’s in a fog all the time, and it’s getting worse. Last night, when I thought I heard noises downstairs, he wouldn’t stop rattling that damned chain. We have to keep our wits about us if we’re going to have any chance of surviving. We have to talk with him, I say, get him to cut back on the Valium. Norman and Harmeet agree. They nominate me. I reluctantly agree.
My mood immediately changes when I walk into the middle of the foyer for morning exercise. The sunlight pouring down the stairway is pure therapy. I lift my hands into the open-air space of the foyer and begin my stretching routine. It’s great to be alive, I want to shout.
Tom emerges from the bathroom. Norman goes in carrying our water bottle and metal cups. Tom walks straight towards Junior. “Sabha il hare,” he says.
“Sabha il noor,” Junior grunts without looking up from the cellphone.
“How did you sleep last night? Nam zane?” Tom asks.
Junior shakes his head. “Mozane. Kool y um mozane.”
“This no sleep too,” Tom says, pointing to himself. “Kool y um mozane nam.” Junior doesn’t answer. “Are we going to be able to do laundry today? Laundry? Frook hind?” Tom asks, demonstrating with his hands.
“No,” Junior says, still not looking up.
“Mbarha, yesterday, haji say, ‘Today laundry.’ El yom laundry.”
Junior looks up from his cellphone. “What this, mbarha laundry? No mbarha laundry. No laundry el yom.”
“Yes,” Tom insists. “Haji told us we could do laundry today. El yom laundry.”
Junior stands up and faces Tom. He makes it very clear: he’s the one in charge today and there will be no laundry.
“Tom,” I say, my voice soft.
Tom stands over Junior and thrusts out his chest. “You go ask him. He’ll tell you. He said we could do laundry.” His voice is hot, his finger points.
“No laundry,” Junior says menacingly.
“Tom! Drop it!” I say.
The two men stare at each other. Tom turns away. Junior glares angrily.
“I’m sorry for what happened last night,” Tom says after Junior has locked us up. “The chain was all knotted up. I just can’t seem to sleep. I don’t know why, but my chain seems to get twisted around all the time.”
God, I think. We need to talk about this. I clear my throat. “I am a little concerned about what happened last night. We weren’t handcuffed and I heard noises downstairs—”
“It’s all right,” Tom blurts, cutting me off. “The chain was just knotted. I didn’t hear anything when I opened the door. The coast was clear.”
“But Tom, your hearing isn’t very good. Especially lately. I’m—”
“I was just trying to unknot the chain. It’s all right. Next time I’ll be more careful.”
“Tom, you’re not listening.”
Tom turns towards me, daggers shooting from his eyes. “That’s enough! Drop it!” he orders. He looks ready to leap out of his chair. I grip the arms of my chair and lean towards him, jaw clenching. “I’m warning you—drop it!” Tom threatens.
Our eyes lock. Don’t do this, a voice cautions. I take a breath and force my shoulders to relax. “All right,” I say, sitting back in my chair. For a long time my body trembles with rage.
Harmeet flicks his nails, Norman shifts in his chair, Tom cracks his shoulders. The silence is unbearable. I stare at the brown stains on the bedsheet curtain and concentrate on my breathing. I try to step back, disengage, separate from the conflict, but my mind spirals helplessly, accusation around blame, blame around accusation. It seems impossible. We’ll never find a way through this. It makes me despair for the world. If we can’t do it, find a way to reconcile, when our survival depends on it and we share a common commitment to non-violence, what hope is there for those whose enmity is written in blood? Tutsi and Hutu, Palestinian and Jew, Croat and Serb.
“Would anyone care for a drink of water?” Norman asks.
Yes, Harmeet says. Sure, Tom says. I can’t answer. Not yet. The words won’t come. Jim? Norman asks.
“I’d love some, thank you,” I manage to say.
Norman pours the water and we pass the cup. He suggests we play the tic-tac-toe game. I turn my mind to the task of laying my cards in rows of five. We play three rounds. When we’re done, I take a furtive glance in Tom’s direction. He’s looking down at his hands. I’m calm now. It’s time. I ask him if we can talk. Sure, he says, but not right now. Sometime this afternoon. Our eyes meet. Thanks, that would be great, I say. He nods.
I’ve prepared my words carefully. Something that’s open-ended and doesn’t accuse, something that invites. “You reacted really strongly this morning,” I say. “I’m curious to know what was going on for you—why you reacted so strongly.”
“I felt like I was being verbally assaulted.” He pauses. “But I guess really it’s the frustration of this chain. Night and day, for sixty days or however long it’s been. I try not to let it get to me. At night sometimes the chain gets all knotted up. I’m not sure how it happens—maybe it’s the way I sleep, or maybe the chain is too short—and then I can’t get my arm in a comfortable position. Anyway, last night I cracked the door open so I could have a bit of light to use the hamam bottle. I was listening to hear if the captors were coming and I didn’t hear anything, so I knew everything was fine. When I closed the door and tried to rearrange myself in these crazy blankets, the chain got all knotted up. I thought maybe I could quickly untangle it. I guess I should’ve asked everyone to lock up first.”
“You said it a few times: ‘It’s all right, it’s all right.’ What did you mean by that?” I ask.
“I just meant that it’s all right, next time I’ll make sure the chain doesn’t get knotted.”
“My concern is that your hearing isn’t very good, especially lately. I thought I could hear something downstairs and I wanted you to stop making noise so I could make sure.”
“It’s all right, I—”
“Would you please stop saying that!” I shout. “It’s not ‘all right’! We were—” I force myself to lower my voice. “We were unhandcuffed. If they had found us like that, it would have been game over. I asked you to stop doing something that I thought was putting us in danger. And you kept on doing it!”
“I’m sorry, it’s just that the chain was—”
“I know—all knotted up, and you could hear what was going on, and everything was fine.” I stop to take a breath. “You’ve had it the hardest of all of us, the way they treat you, especially Junior. I have no idea what it would be like to be chained up all the time. You’re in the most danger of all of us. But none of us has all the information we need, and our survival depends on being able to make the best decisions that we can. And that means having the best information we can get. Your hearing isn’t very good, which means there’s stuff you’re going to miss. So next time, when someone asks you to stop so that they can hear what’s going on—please—for God’s sake—STOP!”
“Okay,” Tom says. His shoulders fall and his face is contrite. My anger starts to relent.
“Well, for next time,” Norman says, “we should just lock up if we are at all worried. Don’t wait.”
I am staggered. He’s right. By hesitating, I put us in more danger than Tom had. “I’m sorry. I never thought of it. I don’t know why. That’s what I should’ve done—locked up right away.”
“Better to be safe than sorry,” Harmeet says.
I turn towards Tom. “Is there anything else? Your reaction was so strong. I’m wondering if there’s something else going on, if something’s been building up.”
No, he says. But there is something else for me. The Valium. I decide to wait. There’s been enough turmoil for one day.
JANUARY 31 DAY 67
Late in the afternoon, Medicine Man enters our room accompanied by Junior and Nephew. He pulls eight hard candies wrapped in gold and silver foil out of his pocket and puts them on the zowagi cube. Junior gives us each two.
“I bring you some copy book,” Medicine Man says, presenting us each with a child’s school notebook, each with a different cover. Mine is an arrangement of plastic purple flowers ringed by a diamond-studded gold necklace. I flip through 120 pages of breathtaking blankspace freedom. I can hardly contain myself. I want to start immediately, playing, leaping, wild cartwheeling-around-in-words.
Junior points to Harmeet. “Father in television,” he says, laughing. “This Hind.” Junior and Nephew mock, ridiculing with their hands his father’s turban and handlebar moustache.
“My father was on television?” Harmeet asks.
“Yes, he make some appeal for you,” Medicine Man says. Then to me, “Your brothers also on television. And I think maybe your sister-in-law? Is that the proper word?”
“My sister-in-law? Donna? On television?” I ask, incredulous.
Junior points at me excitedly. “Umma in television. Umma hazeen.” My heart breaks. My mother on television? I can’t imagine what this must be like for my parents. What comes next I don’t fully understand—something about my mother pleading and crying, and a rally for me, “In Canadi! In Canadi!” with lots and lots of people, all carrying signs, chanting “Jim! Jim!”
Nephew tilts his head and makes a sad face. “Your daughter on television,” he says to Tom. Tom nods, face expressionless.
“And you, Doctor,” Medicine Man says to Norman. “Your madame on television, and your daughter, and baby.”
“That must be my grandson, Benjamin!” Norman cries.
“You very famous. Very famous, all of you,” Medicine Man says.
I’m astounded. Communication is happening through the television, an electronic message in a bottle for each of us, released by our families and beamed around the world, received by our captors and delivered to us in person. All through the television.
“We don’t want to be famous,” Norman says. “We want to go home.”
“Three day, four day, and you release,” Medicine Man says. “Now I must to go. Is there something else?”
No, we say. Medicine Man says goodbye and the captors leave.
“I wish they hadn’t told us,” Harmeet says, referring to the appearance of our families on television.
“I concur,” Norman says. We fall into a silence bitter with remembering.