Captivity: 118 Days in Iraq and the Struggle for a World Without War - James Loney (2011)
FEBRUARY 1 DAY 68
It’s 8:30 a.m. I’m sitting against the wall with my notebook open on my right thigh. Harmeet is lying next to me with his left arm bent into his chest so I can write. I grip the pen in my fingers. How does it happen? It is astonishing, miraculous even, the invisible current of mind that moves through arm into hand, the dexterity of hand holding pen, the rolling-up-and-down-looping-around flow of pen that lays down letter, the accumulation of letter into word, word into sentence, sentence into paragraph.
Gross! I write. We’ve been here over nine weeks. MM came to visit yesterday. Says three or four days more. They’re waiting on some money from Canada, and maybe the release of two more women … and some other vague “small things.” The same song and dance he’s fed us since the beginning of our captivity.
For the first time since our abduction I am excited about the day ahead. I write furiously, breathlessly, greedily. It is pure balm and sheer relief. To move beyond and outside the stifling prison-world of mind. With my pen I can go anywhere, do anything. My notebook is like a magic carpet.
I will have to be careful. I must assume they will see whatever I write. I will write sloppily, in point form, with lots of idiosyncratic abbreviations. Reading it will be difficult, especially for anyone whose first language is not English. Hopefully it will require so much effort they won’t bother to try. I must not become attached to keeping it. They will almost certainly take the notebooks away.
Now, with pen and paper, everything about the captivity is suddenly charged with a new significance. The light filtering through the curtains, the sounds of Baghdad outside, the paint-peeling walls, the strange collection of things in our room—I must document everything, every gesture and movement, every interaction and word.
I begin by itemizing the fifteen things that make up our bed. I draw a diagram showing how it is put together and the way we are shackled at night.
Junior enters the room. “Hamam!” he barks grouchily. I discreetly close my notebook. “What this? Copy book?” He takes the book and opens it. He bursts into laughter. “What this?” he asks, pointing to my drawing.
It’s us, sleeping, lying in bed, I say. He laughs delightedly. Then, seeing the chain I’ve drawn between Tom’s and Norman’s feet, his face folds into a frown. “What this?” he asks. My face turns red. It’s the chain, I say. Junior shakes his finger. “No,” he says. “Mujahedeen good.” He points to the picture. “This give copy book to shorta in Canada. Mooshkilla.”
“This no killam. No killam police in Canada,” I say.
“Zane,” he says, satisfied.
We emerge from our room into the foyer for morning exercise. Junior is sitting on the blue folding chair, absorbed in playing a game on his cellphone. I begin my stretching routine. “What this?” Junior asks, suddenly looking up. I’m standing on one leg, foot braced against the inside of my thigh, arms reaching above my head like an arrow.
“Yoga,” I say.
He gets up and stands in front of me, so close I can see traces of red in his beard, flecks of gold in his eyes. He makes a smooching sound and pinches my waist. I lose my balance. “This yoga?” he asks, pointing his arms above his head in imitation of my pose. Our eyes meet. He’s standing so close. If I wanted to, I could kiss him on the cheek, or smash him with my head.
“Yes,” I say. I look away, pretend he’s not there. He drops his arms and steps back.
The sensation of his touch lingers at my waist. It’s a strangely intimate encounter. It’s as if, for a moment, the boundary between us disappeared, and he was simply a friend spontaneously expressing affection. Who is this man? I wonder. He is my captor and enemy, but he is also a flesh-and-blood human being, a child of God just like me. He’s volatile, erratic, immature, in one instant playful, enthusiastic, singing, the next sullen, contemptuous, abusive. Prone to rages at any moment. At times more boy than man. Dread and trepidation follow in his steps. I can hardly stand the sight of him. We sit on eggshells whenever he is on guard duty.
Today is the perfect example. At breakfast I ask if we can write in our notebooks. His face lights up. “Na’am, na’am. Copy book, copy book!” he says. He removes our handcuffs and calls our names in a prim schoolteacher’s voice as he distributes our books. He paces back and forth with his hands held pedagogically behind his back, stopping now and then to ask a question or to comment.
“What this?” he asks Harmeet.
“Email. For mother and father.”
“This shwaya,” he says, referring to the size of Harmeet’s handwriting. “What this?” he demands of Norman.
“It’s a letter to my wife. For madame.”
“Good Doctors, good copy book,” he says.
He takes my notebook and shows it to Nephew. They snort and laugh at the diagram I’ve drawn. The mujahedeen are good, he tells me. I must only write good things about them, that they bring us tea, cook us good food and are always nice to us. Yes, I promise, I will only write good things.
“Talib good,” he says, handing my book back approvingly. He turns towards Tom and puts his hands on his hips. “This talib no good,” he scolds marmishly, clicking his tongue as he leafs through Tom’s notebook. I want to roll my eyes at this stupid game.
In the early afternoon we hear him whistling in the stairway. What now? I think. He enters bearing an ornate aluminum tray, our lunch, a large bowl of steaming soup ringed with four spoons and four samoons. Can this really be for us? It is!
He sets the tray on the zowagi cube and points to himself proudly. “Write this in copy book. Mujahedeen make soup.” He folds his hands like an altar boy, closes his eyes and makes us repeat, “Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim.”
Though starving, we sit with our hands on our laps. No one wants to be the first. “How are we going to make sure everyone gets a fair share?” Tom asks.
“It’ll be okay,” I say. “Just keep an eye out for the slowest person and eat at their pace.”
Junior glares at us. “Eat,” he barks irritably. We fill our spoons and eat. It’s extravagantly delicious: tomato-mutton soup flavoured with basil and numibasra. I could eat a thousand bowls of it. We thank him profusely. He smiles grandly, as if pleasing us is his only purpose. Then, seeing Norman eat his bread with his left hand, he explodes with gestures and lecturing.
In the long of the afternoon he appears twice more, first with a small plastic bottle. He wants to know what it is. The label says Men’s Gel. “Maybe it’s for your hair,” I say, spiking my bangs. He looks at me blankly. I turn the bottle over. “ ‘Directions,’ ” I read. “ ‘Apply before sexual intercourse.’ ”
“Shoo? What this?” Junior says, tugging my arm, unable to repress his curiosity.
“We call it lube,” I tell him. Junior doesn’t understand. My face reddens. “Lube. It’s for sex.” His eyes widen.
“With madame,” Norman adds.
Junior’s face lights up like a Christmas tree. “Sex? With madame?” he cries. He wants to know how it works.
“Well,” I say, grasping for words. “You … ah … put it on before sex.” He doesn’t understand. I use my hands to demonstrate. Junior runs joyous out of the room, as if he’s just won the lottery.
He returns ten minutes later looking puzzled. “Friend, friend,” is all we understand. He mimes a big belly and points downstairs. He’s talking about Nephew. He rubs his groin, armpits and wrists, showing us where Nephew has applied the men’s gel. There’s some kind of problem. It’s not working. “Mooshkilla. Leaish?”
Junior looks at me intently. My face feels hot. I can’t believe this is happening. Sex education for insurgents. No, I say, forming a circle with my thumb and index finger. I dangle the index finger of my other hand in imitation of a flaccid penis. The gel has to go on the penis before it goes into the vagina, I explain, sliding a stiffened finger through the circle. He laughs hysterically and runs shouting to Nephew downstairs.
An hour later, we hear him in the stairwell, laughing. Fear surges through my body. We look at each other uneasily. He sounds unhinged, berserk. It happens again. He pokes his head through the door, his face a grinning mask of evil. He stands in front of Tom, legs apart and arms extended, hands wrapped around a gun, eyes murderous. “Ammmrrriikki,” he growls, pointing the gun at Tom’s head.
“Hello,” Tom says, holding his poker face up like a shield. Junior snarls and disappears.
“Are you okay, Tom?” Harmeet asks.
“Yeah. I’m okay,” he says, his voice firm and steady, matter-of-fact. “It’s the bombing of his house, losing his family. He’s traumatized. I’m the symbol of all that. I’m the enemy. When I walk around Baghdad, I watch people watching me. I look military. It’s the way I dress, my haircut, my manner. Twenty years of military service does that to you.”
This explains it, I think. Junior is a traumatized boy, a victim. To be a victim is to endure intolerable shame, humiliation without end, the worst possible thing. A boy who is a victim, in order to become a man, must prove he is not a victim. The clenched fist, the gun, the erect penis, these hard exhibitions of power that climax in the domination of the other, they all say the same thing. See, I am the one who acts, decides, controls, penetrates. See, I am not a victim. I am a man. If you do not believe me, I will show you. Fist, gun or cock, whatever it takes, you will be my victim, or I will die with honour trying. This is how it is for a boy who is a victim: through violence he becomes a man.
I am obsessed. I write feverishly, in point form and scattershot sentences. By the end of the day I have filled fourteen pages with my dense scribbles. I take the book to bed with me, in case Harmeet is awake in the morning and doesn’t mind sitting up again so I can write.
The next two days are a blur. I am consumed, swallowed whole in writing. We are a dramatis personae of four hostages and three guards, seven characters in a strange hallucinatory drama where nothing ever happens, actors on a stage no one will ever see.
Seven! We are seven! The biblical number for wholeness and completion. Everything universal and true, everything I need to know to become a whole and complete human being is available to me right here in this room. I don’t need to go or be anywhere else. I must write. Every particularity and detail is crucial. I must write it all down before we are released. It can happen at any time.
FEBRUARY 3 DAY 70
Thank God, Uncle has returned from captor leave. Of all the guards, he has done the most to improve the conditions of our captivity. He was the one who arranged for us to bathe, wash our clothes, trim our beards, the one who rigged up the electric heater, found an old rug to cut the draft under the door, brought Norman a more comfortable chair. “It’s because of his days looking after prisoners. He knows what needs to be done,” Harmeet says. Uncle told us once he’d been in charge of a group of prisoners during the Iran-Iraq War, when he was a conscript in Saddam’s army. Now he receives a regular pension. “Hubis zane,” he told us proudly—good money. We asked him what his work was. “Garden, garden,” he said, moving his arms as if working a hoe.
We live in a state of continuous apprehension. It spikes every time a captor appears. We never know what their arrival might portend: doom, freedom, nothing at all. Despite this, I usually don’t mind when Uncle wanders in to check on us. Sometimes when he enters it is with an agile turn and kick, as though he’s dancing a soccer ball on his toes. Sometimes he is silent as a stone, and he’ll sit staring at the floor deep in thought, or look at us with a cryptic smile, shake his head with what seems to be a kind of fondness, then leave again without having said a word. Sometimes we’ll hear him in the foyer, announcing his arrival with strange blowing and slurping sounds, or if the door is closed he will open it a crack and just his hand will appear, fingers counting down—three, two, one—before he steps into the room. Sometimes it is for just a moment, to open the window or pull the curtain back an inch or two, allowing us a taste of fresh air and sunlight, and sometimes it is for an extended conversation. He’ll mime different animals and ask us their English names. It’s like playing charades. Do foxes live in Canada? he’ll ask. How much does an ostrich egg weigh? Whales are good, they like to swim—can you swim in Canada? In Iraq we swim all the time. “Furat, Furat,” he says.
He’ll spray bug repellent in wild arcs about the room. “La, la,” we protest, coughing. He’ll hunt mosquitoes relentlessly and show us their squashed bodies in his palm. He’ll bark, snort, neigh, smack his lips. “Shhewww, shhewww,” he’ll say to get our attention. He picks his nose habitually, even when handling our food. He spits pumpkin seeds, date pits, excesses of saliva and phlegm onto the floor. He likes smelling the tips of his fingers, lifting and smoothing the elastic band of his track pants, patting his substantial belly. Whenever we ask him if there is any news, his answer is either “Hubis, hubis” or his plane-taking-off gesture, the palm of one hand lifting off from the back of the other hand accompanied by a whooshing sound. In sharp contrast to Junior, Uncle is indifferent to Tom, indifferent to all of us in fact. He is a soldier with a job to do. The particularities of who we are mean nothing to him. “It’s almost like we’re his crops,” Harmeet says. Only once do we catch a glimpse of his true feelings. It happens while he is handcuffing us. His eyes are momentarily apologetic. These are haji’s orders, he says. If it was up to him, he wouldn’t lock us up.
Today he asks me what my house in Canada looks like. I draw him a picture in my notebook of a two-storey brick house with big bay windows and a peaked roof. He asks for my notebook and pen, draws a picture of his own home. It’s long, rectangular, flat-roofed, with a second storey jutting up in the middle. There are five windows, one door, a satellite dish and an antenna on the roof, gases rising from a metal chimney. The house is surrounded by trees and vines. In front of it is a wall that extends across the page, with a gate in the middle. In front of the wall is a road. In the middle of the road, to the right of the gate, sits a vehicle. It looks like a truck. There’s someone inside the truck.
I ask him if he’ll go back to working in his garden after we’re released. Yes, he says. First he pulls an imaginary hoe, then he fashions his hand into a gun. He alternates between hoe and gun, urgently, hastily. He is farmer and warrior both. He points to the vehicle in his picture, eyes darkening with rage. He repeats the story over and over. We glean what we can from the handful of Arabic words we know, his gestures and body language. He was stopped by U.S. soldiers on the road outside his house. They made him get out of his car, searched him, forced him to lie on the road face down with his hands folded behind his head. In his good clothes. In the hot sun. For three hours. One of the soldiers put his boot on his head. His face turns purple. He says they forced a woman who was with him, perhaps a member of his family, to breastfeed in public. The soldiers pointed their guns at him, and at the woman. Yes, at a woman! He used to be only a farmer, he tells us, but now he must be a mujahedeen too. As long as there are Americans in his country.
Junior brings us “lunch,” a stale piece of crumbling flatbread wrapped around some very dry rice, and leaves immediately. I look at it glumly and take a bite. The bread breaks into little pieces and rice free-falls onto the floor. I sweep the rice under my chair with my feet so it’ll be out of view. Junior will go ballistic if he sees it. It enrages me. We’re in handcuffs and somehow we’re supposed to eat these damned scraps without making a mess. There’s no way to avoid it.
I look over to see how the others are doing. Harmeet is managing okay. Norman eats whatever falls on the floor. Tom chews mechanically and stares into the distance, oblivious to the rice dropping at his feet. I want to snap my fingers and shout: Wake up! Can’t you see this is only going to make your situation worse?
Junior returns before I’m able to say anything. He flies into a tantrum. “La Islami, la Islami,” he storms, pointing his finger.
“The rice is very dry and the bread is stale,” I say as calmly as I can. “We’re doing our best, but it’s impossible to eat without spilling it.”
“Najis!” He scowls, sensing I’ve somehow objected to his insistence on manners. He castigates and we, looking chastened, bend down and clean up the rice. And this is how it works, I think bitterly; here the blindness of the oppressor is revealed, the one who steals life away, debases, if necessary kills. Always it is for the sake of some great project. Sometimes he calls it Civilization, sometimes Democracy or Progress or Truth. If he is religious, he might call it a Crusade or a Jihad. Whatever its name, always by definition it is just.
The oppressor takes the great project seriously. He gives his life to it. It anchors and grounds him, makes him feel good and important, like a real Somebody. Until he is confronted by his antithesis, the one he oppresses, whose degradation and squalor arise as a necessary consequence of the great project. Then, disturbed and dismayed, the oppressor turns spontaneously to contempt. The oppressed is an offence. His existence contradicts and interrogates the great project. This cannot be. The oppressor points his finger in accusation. He does this to protect himself from responsibility, separate himself from the thing he has caused. You are filthy, disgusting, contemptible, he will say. Take a bath, get a job, get a life. Pull yourself together. Use bootstraps if that’s all you have. Do this or perish.
The oppressor does not see that his pointing finger is a projection, the exteriorization of something interior. His pointing finger shields him from a truth he dare not admit, that his great project is a lie, that it is the generator of the very thing he despises. The oppressor is like the white-skinned good citizen who sits in horrified judgment of the brown-skinned failed citizen who lies in his streets and on his park benches reeking of alcohol and despair. The good citizen mutters among his own kind, debates solutions in his newspapers and town halls, affirms his good intentions. He passes laws and institutes social welfare programs. When all of this fails to remove the objectionable thing he has brought into being, he grits his teeth and sweeps the failed citizen away. It could be a jail or a ghetto or a reservation, it doesn’t matter where, just so long as he is no longer seen. The oppressor does not know that before he arrived with his great project, before the forests were cleared and the park benches and the liquor bottles were unpacked from his bags, the so-called failed citizen had no knowledge or need of alcohol and park benches, because he was at home and lived free in his own land. This is the blindness of the oppressor in every time and every place. He does not see that he himself is the disease, the harbinger of what he reviles.
That night, Tom observes that we have neglected daily prayer and check-in since the notebooks arrived. We all agree that we have to get back on track. Tom starts off the check-in. He says this is the lowest he’s been—physically, spiritually and emotionally—since the captivity started. The lack of food, his inability to sleep, Junior’s antics; there comes a point when somebody pointing a gun at your head stops being funny. He knows this whole thing is going to end, but when, and what state is he going to be in when it does? He wants to hit the ground running. There’s going to be media, decisions to make, everything moving so fast after all this time of nothing happening. He’s resolved to work as hard as he can to maintain his connection to God and heal the negative energy he’s afflicted with. He concludes by saying he’s decided to cut back to one Valium a day. He says he’s in a haze all the time; he thinks it’s just making him more depressed.
I’m so relieved. There’s no longer any need for the confrontation I’d been dreading—and avoiding.
Norman says he’s been reconstructing the itinerary of each of his thirteen trips to France in his notebook. Otherwise, he’s just trying to disappear in his little corner, trying not to think too much. He says it’s sad to think of all the time that’s being wasted, how at seventy-five every moment is precious. Baptist spirituality isn’t cutting it, he says, at least not here, with its triumphalism and easy answers. He thinks he’s becoming an atheist.
As usual, Harmeet doesn’t say very much. We’re still here, he says, things have been tense with Junior, things will be easier now that Uncle is back. He’s been using his notebook to make a list of all the things he needs to do when he gets home. His semester starts in three days. He’s missed the deadline; there’s no way he can enrol now even if they release us tomorrow.
Our lives are passing us by.
FEBRUARY 4 DAY 71
“Shid gul?” Junior asks us, appearing in the doorway with a stump of cigarette pinched between his fingers.
“Minundra ani gulak,” we say, using the reply he taught us.
He takes a last campy drag and flicks the butt into the foyer. “This zane,” he says, tracing a path from his nose to his lungs. He flips open the top of a cigarette package and drops two pieces of silver foil on the floor. “This Virginia Smooooth,” he purrs, offering each of us a cigarette.
No thank you, we say. He looks vaguely disappointed, pockets the cigarettes and unlocks us for an afternoon hamam break. On his way to the bathroom, Norman stoops down to pick up the foil wrappers. He saves everything: the Sensodyne toothpaste box, his empty blood-pressure-medicine packages, the plastic bag our shoes came in. “You never know when you might need something,” he once said, after I’d asked him about this habit.
After my turn in the bathroom, I’m astonished to find Junior sitting in my chair yakking away. For a moment I wonder if we have somehow exchanged roles. “Jim!” he exclaims, jumping up when he sees me. “Massage, massage!”
This has become an almost daily occurrence. I want to say no, establish a boundary, tell him I am not his personal masseur. Instead I laugh. “Come on, Jim,” he pleads. He sits on the blue folding chair so that he is facing Tom and Norman and Harmeet. He motions for me to stand behind him. I place my hands on his shoulders. How interesting, I think. This is what the captors see when they stand in front of us, over us, above us: four sad, gaunt-looking men wearing black hats, beards and soiled, misshapen clothing. So easy to disdain. We have to be so careful what we say through our faces. They can reveal so much.
I look at my fellow captives and then down at Junior’s neck. It would be so easy. To take my hands and crush his windpipe. I chase these thoughts away and, as I always do before I begin, close my eyes, breathe deeply and surround Junior with God’s light. Remember, you are giving him a gift, I tell myself. It is when you can no longer do this that you must say no, or accept that you have become a slave.
“Shlonik?” Junior asks Harmeet as I strip the muscles in his shoulders and neck, tight like piano strings.
“Noos-noos,” Harmeet says, shrugging his shoulders. Junior asks why. Harmeet imitates Uncle’s plane-taking-off gesture. “New Zealand,” he says. “No mother, no father, no sister.” Junior forms his hands into a machine gun and pretends to fire it at Harmeet. Fear passes through me like a cold wind. Is Junior saying they intend to kill us?
“That’s qatil. That’s murder,” Harmeet says.
“This mujahedeen,” Junior says, insisting that they only kill “jaysh Amriki.” He turns to Norman. “Doctors, shlonik?”
“Oh, well, I should think I’ve been better,” Norman answers.
“Leaish? This no madame?”
“Sadly, yes, no madame.”
“I am sorry, Doctors,” Junior says. Then, making a sad face, he points to Tom. “What this? This mozane?”
Tom nods. Junior asks why. Tom says it’s because he can’t sleep. Junior points to himself, “This no sleep last night. La nam,” he says.
This is important information. If Junior is awake at night, any escape attempt will be exceedingly perilous. As if reading my mind, Harmeet seeks to clarify this with Junior. “Mbhara? Yesterday no sleep?”
The word “yesterday” fills me with a grim melancholy. Yesterday, when our lives were our own. Seized by an impulse, I begin to sing the old Beatles song.
“More,” Junior says when I’m finished, clapping with delight.
I look at Norman, Harmeet and Tom, hoping they can think of something. They can’t. “Amazing Grace” suddenly comes to mind. I begin to sing and they join me.
“Good, good,” Junior says when we’ve finished. “More, more.”
FEBRUARY 6 DAY 73
I take off my shirt in front of the bathroom mirror and run the palm of my hand across my ribs and abdominal muscles. I’m intrigued by the body facing me in the mirror, the bones pushing through a thin veil of skin: clavicle, sternum, ribs, pelvis. I’m turning more and more each day into a skeleton. I wonder how much I weigh, how much more I’m going to lose, if I should be alarmed.
We are hungry, always always hungry. We wake up to it, sit all day in it, sleep in it. The gnawing aching burning empty hollow tingling of it ebbs and flows but never ceases. It is an ugly and detestable sensation that clamours in every molecule of my body. Our minds and bodies are oriented towards the hope of more food the way a compass needle points north.
We’ve become weak, listless, brittle with fatigue. My heart pounds with the smallest exertion. I must husband my energy carefully during morning exercise. Mass-muscular activity, climbing the first stage of the roof stairway for example, something the captors have recently allowed, is immensely tiring. Three ascents of eleven stairs and my knees are buckling. By the end of the half-hour I’m trembling, lightheaded, breathless. It takes most of the morning to recover.
Harmeet asked me if I thought we were being fed a starvation diet. No, I said, horrified at the thought. What they got at Birkenau and Auschwitz, a bowl of watery nettle soup, that’s a starvation diet, I said. But then I considered our daily ration: three samoons stuffed with an egg-sized portion of potato or rice or the occasional morsel of hot dog. What’s that, maybe six hundred calories a day? That’s less than a quarter of what an adult male requires. It’s enough to keep us going, but not much more.
It perplexes me, why they continually give us so little to eat. A second samoon would make such a difference. It can’t be that there’s not enough food. The captors’ waistlines are expanding. It’s most noticeable on Junior; once quite lean, he’s growing soft and pudgy.
Uncle and Nephew both complain about it. “Kabir. Mozane,” Uncle once said, pulling back on his track jacket to show us his growing belly. “Akeel, nam, akeel, nam. Mozane.” All they do is eat and sleep.
Nephew too pulled up his shirt to reveal a giant expanse of stomach. “This kabir. Kabir mooshkilla,” he said. Harmeet smoothed his sweater against his abdomen to demonstrate how thin he’d got. “Shwaya,” he said. “Shwaya mooshkilla.” Nephew shook his head and sucked in his stomach. “No,” he said, “shwaya zane.” I could hardly contain my rage. Don’t they know how hungry we are? If they do, they must not care, or else this is what they want; they’ve figured out that famished hostages are more compliant, easier to control, less likely to fight back or escape. Tom thinks it’s because they get a food allowance from Medicine Man and they’re spending it on themselves instead of us.
Maybe, if we tell them, they might give us a little more, I say. We debate and scheme endlessly, when and how and who. Each of us resolves to do it, but none of us can. It’s impossible to actually say the words: We are hungry. It is inexplicably humiliating.
Yesterday, when we were lying in bed, Nephew presented Harmeet with a yellow plastic bag. “Akeel,” he said benevolently. I couldn’t believe it. They never do this, give us extra food.
“Oh,” Harmeet said, his voice strangely flat, “it’s some bread.”
“Can I see?” I asked, wildly hopeful, visualizing a fresh-baked samoon for each of us. I immediately understood Harmeet’s disappointment when I saw what was in the bag—a handful of scraps, all different sizes, some splashed with tomato sauce, some with teeth marks, the remains of what they’d eaten for supper, probably to the point of discomfort.
We said thank you and waited for the captors to leave. We didn’t want them to see how hungry we were. We watched, eyes riveted to each piece of bread as Harmeet divided the bread into four strictly equal portions. No one ate until Harmeet gave us the sign: “Bon appétit, gentlemen.”
I chewed ravenously, eyes staring hard into the distance. I forced myself not to think about how much I needed and wanted this bread, how it had passed through our captors’ hands, how they’d torn it from their lips and left it on their plates for garbage. The humiliation of it was unbearable.
The day is long. I make lists.
Some Things You Can Do While Handcuffed
(Without the Assistance of the Person You’re Handcuffed To)
rub your fingers together
cross your legs
wiggle your fingers and toes
sit up straight
rotate your shoulders
stick out your tongue
make a fist
use one foot to scratch the other foot
dream about being free
Some Things You Can’t Do While Handcuffed
(Without the Assistance of the Person You’re Handcuffed To)
rub your eyes
scratch your head
stretch your hand above your head
pick up something you dropped on the floor
drink from a glass of water
zip up your zipper
tie your shoes
stand (if sitting)
sit (if standing)
scratch your back
scratch your neighbour’s back
use a pen
cover your mouth when you cough
put a hat on your head
Some Things I Took for Granted About Freedom
answering the phone
opening a window for fresh air
riding my bicycle
walking as far as I want to
going to the bathroom whenever I want
a hot shower and a clean towel
coffee with cream
not being hungry all the time
choosing whom to spend time with
being alone when I want to
answering the door
having friends over for dinner
sun shining on my face
sleeping in my own bed
being curled up with Dan
playing with Tonnan and Seph and Raffi
waiting for the streetcar
hanging clothes on the clothesline
taking out the garbage
reading the newspaper
bothering Dan while he reads the newspaper
getting caught in the rain
deciding what to wear in the morning
watching Dan shave
green living things
walking in a snowfall
rosy winter cheeks
seeing your breath condense in the air
being tired from physical activity
sharing a bottle of wine
clean socks and underwear
making a grocery list
setting my alarm clock
coming home after being out somewhere
keys in my pocket
And I write.
It is hard to be here. During our afternoon hamam interval, Uncle opened the window to let fresh air circulate through our cell of gloom. Two feet of open window, street sounds flowing in direct, unmediated by the window. And light! fresh air light! glancing, glowing off the building next door, perhaps fifteen feet away. Oh, my heart/soul just thrills with fresh-air thirst to be free! This being locked up, four men in a row, each movement of hand and arm pulling against another hand and arm, elbows always touching, or just about, it’s too much. I’m sick to death of it: the hunger, the all-day sitting and all-night lying in a sardine row, the utter lack of autonomy, the imposition on Dan, my parents, my brothers and sister, CPT. How strange to see that particular alphabetic formulation. I think hardly at all of CPT anymore, or home, even Dan. I’m just here, in the belly of the insurgency, a seed in waiting, 73 days of it.
I close up my notebook. I’m feeling sorry for myself again. It’s time to do my inventory. It’s the only thing that helps when things get unbearable. Always it starts, I am alive. It changes, now and then, depending on the day, how I am feeling, what I can be grateful for. Today it goes like this: I am not in pain, I am not alone, I am not wet. I have my faith, I am sleeping okay, I am in good health. I am not depressed and I am not afraid. I can see, hear, taste, smell, feel, think. I have a home. I have people who love me and are waiting for me. I am from a country where there is peace.
I feel better when I am done. It always reminds me: things could be worse.
FEBRUARY 7 DAY 74
We’re lying in bed. Nephew is getting ready to turn off the light and go downstairs. “Aku akhbar, Haji?” we ask. It’s our perpetual question.
“News good,” Nephew says. “Friday go to Canada.” He points to Harmeet and me. “Canada okay. Canada hubis okay. La mooshkilla. Tom zane, Amriki good. Britannia, Doctor zane/mozane.” He waves his hand back and forth to show things are up in the air.
“Harmeet and Jim go Friday?” Harmeet asks.
“No,” Nephew says. “All four together.” He holds up four fingers. “Canada hubis in Ordoon. Amriki okay. Norman zane/mozane. English haji la Baghdad. English haji Ordoon.”
“What did he mean?” Norman asks when Nephew is gone. It is unclear and contradictory, impossible to make sense of. It sounds as if they’ve got the money from Canada, Tom’s release has been secured through the prisoner exchange, and now they’re just waiting for Britain to come through with a ransom so they can release the four of us together.
“I have a new mantra,” Norman says. “It’s ‘When I get back to Pinner.’ It just occurred to me during the Bible study. It was like I snapped awake. This is what I have to do, where I have to keep my focus: when I get back to Pinner! Pinner, it’s my new name for God.”
“I don’t understand,” Harmeet says. “What’s Pinner?”
“Well, that’s the part of London I live in!” Norman exclaims.
“Shall we unlock?” Tom says. “Norman, do you have the Instrument of Grace?”
“I thought you’d never ask,” Norman says.
In fact we have several now. We’ve recently discovered a gold mine supply right at our fingertips: the dozens of curtain hooks in the pleats of the grey curtains we use to cushion our legs at night. We keep them carefully hidden. The original Instrument of Grace, the nail from Harmeet’s shoe, is pinned inside the hem of the red blanket. Harmeet keeps a piece of curtain hook in the waistband of his track pants, Norman in a pocket inside his tweed jacket, and we’ve hidden a forth in the bathroom. Norman is just about to unlock when Uncle flicks on the light. I almost leap out of my skin. Where the hell did he come from! Uncle goes straight to the barricade and grabs a videocassette. He draws a small rectangular box in the air. “Mooshkilla, mooshkilla,” he says. Their VCR is broken. He wants one of us to come and fix it. Harmeet, you’re the engineer, we say, you better go. Uncle unlocks him and takes him into the mysterious, forbidden world we know simply as Downstairs.
“Wow, that was close,” I say. It’s past midnight when Harmeet returns.
FEBRUARY 8 DAY 75
“What happened last night?” I ask Harmeet as soon as he’s awake.
“I didn’t want to go,” Harmeet says.
“What did they make you do?”
“The VCR motor wasn’t working for some reason. It’s probably jammed. They didn’t have a screwdriver to open it, so there wasn’t much I could do. Plus they had it plugged in wrong—the ‘out’ plug was in the ‘in’ plug—and then they didn’t have the right cable. But they have a DVD player, so I watched Legends of the Fall with them. Nephew fell asleep and snored really loud through the last half of the film. It wasn’t bad. Brad Pitt was in it.”
“What was it about?” I ask, suppressing a pang of jealousy.
“Oh, I guess it’s mainly a story about guilt. It’s set on a ranch in Wyoming. Uncle really liked the cowboys. It was really uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be there, with you guys being locked up here. Uncle even gave me some leftovers. I feel a little guilty about it. It was some bread from their supper. When he offered it to me I said I’d share it with you all upstairs, but he said no. He said, ‘This is from me to you.’ I couldn’t say no, so I ate it. I shouldn’t have. It wasn’t fair.”
“I’m glad you took it. No use in all of us starving. What’s it like down there?”
“Uncle sleeps on the floor and Nephew sleeps on the bed. The other bed, the one with all the crumbs on it, is used as a table for putting stuff on, food and whatnot. Uncle munched on popcorn for the whole movie. He had a huge bag of it. He offered me some but I said I was full from the bread. It was empty by the end of the movie. They have a soba down there going full blast. I was actually hot. If there is a petrol shortage, they certainly aren’t suffering from it. They kept the door open a crack.”
I curse myself. If only I’d known: the door closed, TV going, Uncle absorbed in a movie, Nephew sound asleep. I could have unlocked, scouted out the kitchen, the rest of the house, maybe even escaped! There’s a way out of here, I’m sure of it. We just have to figure it out.
For some inexplicable reason we’re given a vast quantity of food for lunch: a samoon for each of us, and a bowl of rice and a bowl of lentil stew to share.
At first I am anxious—we’re eating from a common dish again, how is this going to work?—but then I relax when Tom divides the food into four equal portions. Nephew, who has brought the food, objects loudly: only Americans divide their food like this. Thank you, we say, ignoring him, the food is very good. He tells us it was made by Uncle. He says he can’t eat it because he is Sunni and this is Shia food. He mocks the Shia, beating his chest and whipping his back. “Kaffir. Majnoon,” he says of them.
When we’re finished, Nephew takes away the dishes and locks us up. There’s an unfamiliar sensation in my body. It’s almost uncomfortable. It takes me a minute to figure out that my stomach is full.
Before Nephew can leave, Uncle appears at the door. We thank him lavishly. I will cook for you if you ever come to Canada, I tell him, Nephew interpreting for me.
How long does it take to get to Canada? Uncle asks. About twelve hours by plane. How long does it take to fly to Amman? One hour. Is there a plane from Amman to Canada? Yes. How long does it take? About eleven hours. Do I have a mobile? No. Why not? I don’t like them. When I’m at the airport, how do I get in touch with you? By a pay phone. I will come pick you up. With a car.
How do I get your phone number? I’ll write it down for you when we’re released. Good, he says.
All night, a roaring wind, bottles sweeping along pavement, gusts pushing against the window, whistling through invisible crevices, the warbling crash of flying sheet metal.
I want to be free. Just like the wind.
FEBRUARY 9 DAY 76
“Today is Andrew’s birthday. He’s turning twenty,” Tom tells us, stoic, as though announcing some practical fact. Silence fills the room. No one knows what to say. The pain of it is too much. Andrew, without his father on his birthday, not knowing whether he is alive or dead, the grim fear of never seeing him again. Tom told us all about him. Kassie too. I offer a silent prayer for them, for all of our families. I can’t imagine what they must be going through. We at least know we are alive. They don’t even know that much.
They take Harmeet downstairs to have another look at the VCR player. His report when he returns: “Well, they got a screwdriver and I was able to open it up to have a look. I found a loose connection, and the elastic that turns the spindle is broken. I offered to fix it if they can find another elastic. Nephew and Uncle started bickering about it. Nephew didn’t want Uncle to mess with it. I don’t think he trusts Uncle to fix it.
“They have a hard life down there. They don’t live much better than we do. They have nothing to do. There’s no electricity most of the time. They only get two or three channels. It’s Junior that brings the movies in. I asked them why they don’t get cable. Nephew made a face and said haji said no, they weren’t going to be here long enough to make it worth getting. So I guess that’s a good sign. The only difference is they have a soba, and they can eat as much as they want.”
“They can certainly leave any time they want,” Norman says.
“Maybe not,” Tom says. “They might not have a choice anymore, having joined the mujahedeen. Who knows, they might be killed if they tried to leave.”
Uncle beats his chest and pretends to flog his back. The Shia are crazy, they are friends of the Americans, they collaborate with George Bush. Ali baba. Bush is taking our oil. Bush najis, Britannia najis. The Sunni are fighting against the Sunni. The Sunni are good. I am Sunni. China is good. We get weapons from China. Bush, Blair, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, they’re all taking oil. Mozane. China isn’t taking oil. China zane. Canada zane.
He forms his hands into a machine gun, a rocket launcher, planes dropping bombs. No salam in Iraq, he says. He is a mujahedeen. Why? Because the Americans have invaded Iraq. He doesn’t kill American and British civilians. Why? He points to each of us and then to himself. Salam. He’s a man of peace, just like us. I’m not going to shoot you, he promises. When the American army leaves, there’ll be no more war. America and Britain and Iraq will be friends again. You have to tell Congress, tell Bush and Blair to leave Iraq and there will be peace.
Uncle points to our handcuffs. You came to Iraq and you were kidnapped. Hubis, hubis, he says. The money is for guns, mortars, rocket launchers. It’s not for me, he insists, shaking his head and waving his finger. Do you understand? he asks. Yes, we say.
When he’s gone, Harmeet says, “He’s given us his lesson on peace.”
There’s an explosion. Near enough to shake the windows. Junior instantly raises his hands in the air and shouts “Allah Ackbar” three times. God is great. God is great. God is great. A long exchange of gunfire follows.
Uncle and Junior grin at each other. “Mujahedeen,” they say proudly. Then, pointing at Tom, “Amriki jaysh mot. Good.”
“That’s just great,” Tom says as soon as they leave. “Just what we need—more dead people.”
During the night, Norman coughing in his sleep, bursts of air hitting the back of my neck. I can’t stand it. I really can’t stand it.
FEBRUARY 10 DAY 77
Junior pulls a switchblade out of his pocket. He flicks it open, examines it for a moment, then lunges suddenly for Uncle’s chest, stopping an inch from his heart. Uncle, sitting in a chair, yawns sleepily. Junior draws the knife across Uncle’s throat with a villainous grin and then across his scalp. Uncle looks into the distance and picks his nose. Junior locks his arm around Uncle’s head and squeezes. Without warning, Uncle explodes out of his chair and they’re wrestling. We step out of the way. Uncle slams Junior against the wall. Junior charges. Their arms lock. Junior squirms free and grabs Uncle by the throat. Uncle grips Junior by the wrist, pulls down and twists his arm behind his back. He marches Junior into the foyer and forces him onto the floor. Junior knees Uncle in the gut and breaks free of his hold. They roll across the floor. We look at each other helplessly, no longer sure if they’re playing.
I step towards them and wave my arms like a referee. “Salam, salam,” I cry. They have each other by the throat. Uncle’s face is turning purple, drool oozing from his mouth. “Ding ding ding. Salam, salam,” I cry again.
Junior sits up with a big grin on his face. Uncle sputters, rolls onto his back, wipes his face. Both men are soaked in sweat and gasping.
“Good, good,” Junior says between heaving breaths. He clambers to his feet and bounces down the stairs. Uncle lurches into a chair to recover his wind while we go about our morning exercises. We no longer think of Junior as the easiest captor to physically subdue.
Uncle appears with news. What he has to say is electrifying: Haji is here, he’s going to take a picture of us, then tonight or tomorrow we will be released.
My instinct is to be doubtful: here, yet again, another hot-air promise. Tom, however, is convinced. “Something is definitely happening,” he says. Uncle has never been this specific before. The money must’ve finally come through and the prisoner exchange must be complete. He wants to discuss all the possible logistics of our release tomorrow: what to do if they take us to a safe house, a mosque, a political party office or leave us on the street; how we’ll get back to the CPT apartment to get our stuff and debrief; transportation arrangements for getting home.
I’m annoyed. First at Tom’s certainty—there’s no way he can know for sure tomorrow is the day—and second at the prospect of having to discuss this yet again. We already have a plan, I remind him. From wherever we end up being released, whether it’s separately or all together, we’ll call Doug in Toronto. He’ll get in touch with the team and notify our families. If at all possible Norman will go directly to the airport and get the first flight home; the team can send his luggage on later. Hopefully they’ll be able to come and meet us. If not, we can get a taxi to drop us off at St. Raphael’s Hospital and walk to the apartment from there; we don’t want to attract any attention to it. If that’s not possible, we can ask to be taken to the nearest police station. Once we get to the apartment we can call our families, debrief, get our stuff and book a flight home. If any of us are released before the others, we can wait in Amman provided it doesn’t take too long.
“You’re losing your resolve to stay in the present, Tom,” Norman jokes.
“No,” Tom says, “this is no different. I’m just suggesting we prepare ourselves as best we can for the different scenarios that might arise.”
“I see,” Norman says.
“The worst part of this is being treated like a commodity.”
Norman explodes. “Oh, please! Would you STOP saying that! You’ve said it so many times, it’s burned into my brain.” Norman drills his finger against his temple. “Like a laser. Commodity, commodity, commodity!”
“I’m sorry,” Tom says. “It’s just that I’ve never felt this way before. Lots of other people have been made into slaves, but I never have. I never understood before what other oppressed people must go through, not having any control over their lives, not being consulted about decisions that affect them, people in abusive relationships who have to watch everything they do and say. I never knew what that was like, but I have a glimpse of it now.”
Norman apologizes. “I’m sorry. Really, I shouldn’t object. You—”
“I’ve come to see this as a 76-day retreat to work on my spiritual life, which wasn’t all that much when we started. I just hope it’s gotten stronger. And I just hope that when I get out of here I don’t fall into my old patterns of self-indulgence and self-gratification.”
“When I get out of here,” I say, “I’m going to enjoy life as much as I can.”
“Baklava,” Harmeet says longingly.
“Well, I’m maintaining my pessimism here, just in case,” Norman says. “We’ve heard these things before, haven’t we?”
“Not like this. I think we’re really close this time,” Tom says.
FEBRUARY 11 DAY 78
Morning exercise. Junior is bouncing, running, doing push-ups, weaving circles around us in the foyer. He stops next to me. “Come on, Jim, massage,” he says.
Something tells me this is the time to say it. “This no suicide. La, this no go boom,” I say, repeating the motions he first used to show a bomb strapped to his body.
Junior shakes his head. “No suicide,” he says.
I look him in the eyes. “Mazboot?”
“Mazboot,” he says. “No suicide.” He sits down on the blue folding chair.
“Inshallah, this abu,” I say before I begin the massage. “This whalid. This abu zane.”
“Thank you,” he says, grinning.
“I want to tell you something,” Tom says as soon as the captors lock us up for the day. “I had this strange experience last night. I was awake, looking up at the ceiling, just lying there, trying to meditate, when …” He hesitates, reaches for words. “I don’t know how to describe it. It wasn’t a dream. It was more like a vision …” He stops speaking, self-conscious, unsure if he should continue.
Go on, we say, we’re listening.
“You’ll probably think this is strange, but I want to tell you because you’re my friends. The most amazing thing happened. I couldn’t sleep. I was just lying there, when I heard this voice. I don’t know where it came from, but it was clear and unmistakable, almost as if it was a real voice. All it said was, ‘I am here, I am here.’ And I felt this incredible sense of peace. Total and complete peace. Everything just melted away—all the anxiety and fear—everything. It just kept repeating, over and over, ‘I am here, I am here.’ ”
He looks at us, his face shining. “I think it was God, saying, ‘I am here.’ I don’t know how long it went on, but I’ve been meditating on those words ever since. I’ve never felt more at peace.”
There is a long, glowing silence. I look over at Tom. He’s serene, alert to everything, almost buoyant. I smile, then bow my head. I think I hear it too, the same voice resounding in my own heart. I am here, I am here.
The captors come with news. Medicine Man is on his way. We’re going to be released, possibly even today!
It’s an all-day, nail-biting wait. Wild with the hope of freedom we seize upon every step, voice, door opening and closing. Darkness falls; the diesel generators in the buildings around us come purring to life. “He’s not coming,” Norman says glumly. As if on cue, we hear the kitchen door slam. We look at each other, hardly daring to breathe.
Medicine Man enters with joking and laughter. Then, facing us, he’s suddenly serious, a man of important business. “News good. Everything finished. Our negotiator is back. Everything complete. Today, tomorrow, you will go.”
We ply him with questions. He’s slippery. Getting specific information out of him is like trying to catch a fish with bare hands. He skates around our questions with generalities, vague promises, soothing pacifications. The negotiator is in Baghdad—he just got the call, two hours before now.
So the negotiations are finished?
And the prisoner release?
Medicine Man looks puzzled.
There were two women to be released as part of the negotiation, we remind him.
“Oh yes,” he says, as if suddenly remembering. “I think we do something else. Today, tomorrow, I don’t know, I carry you, one by one, in the car to the other house.”
“In the boot?” I say, alarmed. Oh God, please, not that again.
“Yes, in the boot. There is no other way, it is not safe. We have some checkpoint. But this is not a problem. You do this before. We carry you back to the first house, one by one. You will have some shower, we take some picture, we prepare you for you release. Then we take you, all together, in a car, no blindfold. We take you to some mosque. It is not far. I think you know this place.”
I groan. Not the Muslim Scholars Association, the place where we were kidnapped!
“It is the safest place. We will let you out and you will walk to the mosque. Your negotiators will come and meet you in five minutes.”
“What about our things?” Norman asks. “Glasses, passports, cameras …”
“Everything is there.”
“So today or tomorrow we will go—even tonight,” I say, trying not to sound too hopeful.
“I don’t know. If it is safe. I will go now and make the trip, see if it is safe to bring you.”
“Has Medicine Man ever told us the truth?” Norman’s question rings in my ears all night. “We’ve never been so close,” Tom keeps insisting. “I have a bad feeling about this,” Harmeet said, pulling me aside during night lock-up, making sure the others couldn’t hear.
I don’t know what to think. Harmeet and Norman are right to be skeptical. I know it’s foolish but I can’t stop myself from being hopeful. The desire to be free, like a wild and sovereign beast, will not be tamed. Let it be now, today, this very minute. I am ready.
FEBRUARY 12 DAY 79
For the first time in captivity, Tom tells a joke. “What’s the difference between a Marine and a mushroom?” he asks. We think for a moment and then give up. “Nothing,” he says, grinning like a little boy. “They’re both kept in the dark and fed bullshit.” We laugh, astonished by Tom’s levity. We are all of us vibrating with excitement—even Norman. It can’t be helped. The hope of release is irresistible. Finally! we tell each other. Finally! We are going home.
“I’m going last,” Tom declares. We all agree, without ever having to say it; this is the unbearable thing, to be the one left alone waiting to the end.
Harmeet objects. “I was last the last time. I don’t mind. I’ll go last this time.”
There’s no point in arguing. Tom’s resolve is incontestable. He changes the subject. “We’ve moved from being an asset to a liability. Until the deal is done, they’re on the hook for us. If something happens to us in the interim, they’ll have no credibility for future hostage negotiations.”
“I hope to turn into a personal asset very shortly,” Norman says.
“Pat’s personal asset?” I say.
Norman chuckles. “Yes. She’s likely to hit me with a frying pan.”
“You’ll have to do some extra chores around the house to make it up to her—things you’ve been putting off that Pat’s been after you for,” I say.
“I’ll beg weakness—or should I say feebleness,” Norman says.
“We aren’t out of the woods yet,” Tom says. “Anything can happen. There are a number of nightmare scenarios, you know, like what happened to Giuliana Sgrena when they were taking her to the airport—”
I roll my eyes. Norman explodes. “We don’t need to hear any more nightmare scenarios,” he shouts. “We’ve been through enough nightmare scenarios!”
Tom continues undeterred. “The communication link between the Italian and the American governments broke down. They didn’t know what was happening, so when they were rushing Giuliana Sgrena to the airport, the Americans opened fire on her car. One of the Italian security officials threw himself on top of her. He was killed, but she was okay. And that was with only two governments. Our case is much more complex. We’ve got three governments involved, plus the Iraqi government. That increases the chances that something crazy can happen. It means that when we’re released and we’re talking with the third-party negotiator, we need to be checking. Do the Americans know about this plan? What about the Canadians and the British? Do the Iraqis know? We need to check that the governments are in communication with each other so that what happened to the Italians doesn’t happen to us.”
“Fine,” Norman says, “but I don’t want to hear about any more nightmare scenarios.”
“Should we have a meeting to discuss what we’re going to do?” Tom asks. “I mean, we have no idea what’s going to happen—if we’re going to be whisked to the Green Zone right away—we’re going to need money in Amman—we should decide who we’re going to call first—”
“Tom,” I say, trying to keep the exasperation out of my voice, “we’ve been through all this. We all have Doug’s number. It’s all so unpredictable. What we’ve already decided is all we can really plan for.”
“We have to expect the unexpected,” Tom says.
“Yes, and then expect it to change,” I say.
I write a poem in my notebook for my friends Raffi, Tonnan and Sephie, aged 1-and-a-half, 5 and 8.
Your secret friend stopped by to say
have a wonderful beautiful
let shine your soul in rainbow ray
and boy-oh-boy-oh-boy just play
prance and dance all your live long way
I wonder, how are you? What are you doing today? How I miss you! It has been seventy-eight days. Will I ever see you again? Soon, may it be soon.
Cramps, gut squeezing, a tight, hard fist. I long to lie down flat, ease the stress out of my body. I wave it away but always it comes back, the question buzzing in my head like a horsefly, Are we going to be taken somewhere to be shot?
Sometime between Christmas and New Year’s, Tom proposed that we issue a joint statement upon our release. He recited the statement from memory, over and over, sentence by sentence. We spent hours cutting, pasting, editing, refining. Tom remembered every word, every change we made. The statement was addressed primarily to citizens of the United States and Britain, calling upon the American and British governments to respect the will of the new Iraqi Parliament by seeking its legislative approval and clearly defined terms for the continuing occupation of their country.
I was never enthusiastic about the statement. It felt like an obligation, a responsibility, something to organize. I imagined having to write a press release, arrange a press conference, call media outlets, follow up with interviews. It was the last thing I wanted to be doing upon our release, if it ever happened. I told Tom I would be part of the statement and I would attend a press conference, but I wouldn’t do anything else; he, or the CPT team, would have to do the rest. That was fine with him.
Tom wants to go over the statement one last time. He has it written in his notebook. Harmeet takes a deep breath as if to gather his courage together. Of the four of us, he is the most conflict-avoidant. He has an objection. He doesn’t like “Our experiences in captivity have strengthened our commitment to Jesus’s teaching of ‘loving our enemies’ and ‘praying for those who persecute us.’ ” His objection is threefold. One, he’s not sure it represents him. Two, it implies that Christianity has the power to say what everybody, including Muslims, should believe, and if you don’t, then you’re on the wrong side of the truth, and of course we know what happens then. And three, he’s not comfortable using religious language in a public document. The first and third objections are secondary, he says, the second is primary.
I understand and accept the first and third objection, I say, but I have difficulty with the second. We’re not saying what Muslims should believe, we’re saying what we believe. We’ve talked about how, because of liberal guilt, people don’t want to make any claims because they’re afraid they might exclude or offend somebody, and so they end up trading away their identity altogether. If we take this out, it means we’d be censoring ourselves, that we can’t say who we are without offending somebody else.
“But this is being addressed to Muslims,” Harmeet says.
“No,” I say, “it’s being addressed to Britons and Americans.”
“Jim’s right,” Tom says.
“Oh, I must’ve forgotten that,” Harmeet says. “I don’t mean to censor anybody. Now that I understand better, it’s the first reason. I’m just not comfortable with it. I’m not really a Christian. It’s not a claim I can make.”
“Then we have to change it,” Tom says. Tom asks Norman for his opinion. Norman says whether or not people understand what the quotes mean, they are instantly recognizable, especially for Christians, who are the majority of the population in Britain and the U.S. That gives them a certain amount of power. Using them might make Christians think about their faith in a different way, that it must not be used to justify violence. However, if Harmeet has an objection, he doesn’t mind changing it.
We revise the statement to read: “Our experiences in captivity have strengthened our belief that the real enemy of peace is violence undertaken for any reason, regardless of whether it be the violence of an occupying army, or the violence of an insurgent group who uses kidnapping to finance their resistance to that occupation.”
“I like it,” Harmeet says. “It moves the focus away from our captors. I’m not sure they’re my enemy. I feel lighter now. I didn’t realize how much it was affecting my mood. I should’ve brought it up a lot earlier and gotten it over with.”
I apologize. When we wrote the statement, I say, we just assumed this sentence included you. Harmeet says he should’ve said something at the time. We still should have checked with you, I say. It’s always hard having to push against an assumption. It puts the onus on you and there’s a weight behind it that can be really hard to move.
“You’re right,” Harmeet says. “It’s funny how it took me so long to figure out what I was feeling and why.”
I feel lighter too. Now we are ready to face the world, I think.
At five in the afternoon, Junior arrives dressed in a pink shirt, natty suit jacket, pressed trousers, his hair perfectly coiffed. “Shid ghul?” he asks, smiling irrepressibly.
My spirits leap madly. Has the time finally come? He gently removes our handcuffs. “Yes Tom, yes Harmeet, yes Jim, yes Norman,” he says, cooing our names as he bends over our wrists. He kisses each of us. The quick brush of his cheek against mine is strangely comforting. Then his smile vanishes. He stands tall, shoulders back, points to each of us—a commander issuing an order. “You all go. In car. Tom, then Norman, then Jim, then Harmeet.”
We’re in terrible danger, I suddenly realize. I sit on my hands to keep from shaking. Everything reduces to fact. Emotion must not exist. It is verboten, unpredictable, a wanton danger. Whatever happens, I am only a video camera recording.
Tom and Norman are told to get ready to leave. Tom changes back into his own clothes and forces his size-twelve feet into his size-nine sneakers. He carefully folds his captor clothes into a neat pile with his notebook, pen and toothbrush: the only things he has left in the world. “You have Doug’s phone number memorized?” I ask him. He nods, his poker face dissolving into apprehension.
“Am I going to be able to get my stuff at the CPT apartment?” he asks Junior. Junior looks at him, puzzled.
“My luggage, my clothes, all my things. At the CPT house.” Junior does not understand. “The CPT house. Beit CPT. Where all my things are,” he says, arms reaching urgently through his voice.
“He doesn’t know,” I say as gently as I can.
Uncle enters briefly. He points to the clothing on Tom’s lap. He asks Tom how he’s going to carry his things. “Chees, chees?” Does he want a bag to put them in?
Uncle’s reference to a bag makes Tom think of his luggage. “My bags,” he says. “Am I going to be able to get my bags at the CPT apartment?” Uncle shakes his head and repeats his question. “My bags at the CPT apartment,” Tom pleads. “Am I going to be able to get my bags at the CPT apartment?”
“He doesn’t know, Tom,” I say gently. “He’s talking about a bag to put your clothes in.”
“Oh, okay,” Tom says. His shoulders slump forward and he sits forlornly with his hands folded between his thighs like an obedient child waiting for a cherished permission. He looks so vulnerable, bewildered, lost. My emotion surges. No, force it back, lock it away.
Junior gives Tom the signal that it’s time to go. Tom bounces up, his face full of boyish expectation. Junior bends down to look Norman in the eyes. He speaks slowly and deliberately, his face mere inches away. He says he’ll be back in half an hour to take him next. Then he turns towards Tom with a pair of handcuffs.
“Well, I guess this is goodbye,” Tom says, his face and eyes soft, open, hopeful. His words are like an electric shock. I know what he’s thinking: we’re going to be released in stages; this will be the last time we see each other until we all get home. Something far more grim flashes across my mind. I chase the thought away.
Tom and Harmeet shake hands. “See you soon,” Harmeet says.
I feel very strange. There’s an engine inside me roaring full throttle. No! a voice screams. Now! it commands. Fight to the death! Instead I feel, say, do nothing. I stand up like a grey cardboard puppet that’s being moved by an invisible hand. “Goodbye, Tom,” I say, looking him in the eyes. I wrap my arms around him, for a moment hold him tight. His body is all hardness and bone. There’s nothing left of him. It shocks me: this is the first time we’ve touched each other since the captivity began. It’s impossible to do in handcuffs, pat someone on the shoulder or give them a hug. I hold Tom’s shoulders for a brief moment. Be strong, God is with you, I want to say. I keep reaching for words, but they won’t come.
Tom turns to Norman. They shake hands. “Take care, old chap,” Norman says. The moment is stiff, awkward, formal.
Junior is waiting with the handcuffs. “Tom, can I give you a hug?” Harmeet asks. They step towards each other and embrace.
Junior tells Tom to put his hands behind his back. No, please, I want to cry out, that’s not necessary. Junior locks Tom’s wrists behind his back. He’s totally helpless now. Uncle scoops his clothes into a bag. My eyes reach for Tom’s, but he doesn’t see me. He’s scared, lost, already looking ahead. Junior takes Tom by the arm and turns him towards the dark foyer. And then he is gone.
We are squeezed in a giant vise of waiting. With every minute, the vise closes tighter. I can hardly breathe. At nine-thirty, Nephew and Uncle announce that it’s time for bed. What’s happening with Norman? we ask. They look confused. We point to the little bedroll Norman has made with his woollen tie. He is supposed to go with Tom, we say. They look surprised. No, they say, you’re staying here. News good for Harmeet and Jim. Big Haji in Baghdad. Hubis in Baghdad. Tomorrow or the next day, go to Canada. Inshallah. Now sleep, they say.
We set up our bed. No more need to make a place for Tom with the sleeping mat. We can all fit across the futon under the blanket now, and each of us has his own pillow. Harmeet takes Tom’s place next to the door. I watch, as if suspended from the ceiling. There’s a man locking a metal bracelet around somebody’s wrist. The wrist has a mole on it just like mine. The man says good night and closes the door. I fall asleep instantly.