Captivity: 118 Days in Iraq and the Struggle for a World Without War - James Loney (2011)
FEBRUARY 13 DAY 80
And then there were three. There used to be four. Four toothbrushes standing together in a castaway Tupperware container. How I loved the colour of them—there is so little of it in our lives—red and green and blue and purple, so chosen by Medicine Man so we would each have our own to use. They represented our individuality. But now the purple one, Tom’s, is gone. A great hole has opened in our lives.
For a moment, grief breaks through. I push it down, bury it deep, pave it over. We just have to keep going.
Tomorrow, tomorrow after tomorrow, a week, Nephew says.
A week? we say. It was supposed to be yesterday. No, yesterday before yesterday.
News good, he says. One million in Iraq, one more million from Canada, we count all the money, phone call from Big Haji, one week and go.
We are staying here, then?
And what about Tom?
He shrugs his shoulders. He doesn’t know. He was at home, off duty when all of this happened.
He offers each of us a candy wrapped in crinkly gold paper. No thank you, I want to say, I’m not interested in your pathetic attempt to make everything better. But I watch, aghast at myself, at the three of us, as we hold out our hands, unwrap and pop them into our mouths, let them dissolve into our bodies. I can’t decide whether I am more disgusted with our captors or myself.
“I wouldn’t mind to hold on to those,” Norman says, pointing to the wrappers in our hands. He folds them up carefully and adds them to the secret miscellany in his pockets.
He produces them later, along with the silver foil cigarette papers he has squirrelled away. “Do either of you gentlemen recall how to make a peace crane?” he asks.
Yes, Harmeet says. It amazes me as I watch them, folding, unfolding, refolding, trying to reconstruct the pattern that a 12-year-old Japanese girl named Sadako Sasaki completed a thousand times before she died. It is a welcome reprieve from the long torment of waiting, the wondering, when are they going to take the rest of us to the other house. She was two years old when her city, Hiroshima, was destroyed by an atomic bomb. When she became sick with leukemia and had to be hospitalized shortly after her twelfth birthday, her best friend told her about the ancient Japanese legend that promises one wish to those who make a thousand origami paper cranes. Sadako got to work immediately. Her wish was for world peace. She used whatever paper she could find. She asked the other patients for the wrappings from their get-well presents and collected the little squares their medicines came in.
Sadako makes me think of Anne Frank, writing away in her red-checker diary at the age of fourteen, telling the story of her life in hiding, two pressure-cooked years in a secret apartment with seven other people, never seeing the sky, living in constant fear of the day they would be betrayed, arrested, deported to Nazi death camps. Her diary was saved by a friend of her family and found its way to her father, the only one of her group to survive, who then transcribed and published it.
Both girls died anonymous and irrelevant, their lives of no apparent consequence beyond the circle of those who knew them. Yet Sadako’s hospital bed project has become a world symbol of peace, and Anne’s diary is one of the most important testaments of the twentieth century. None of us can know the measure of our lives. None of us can know what our actions might seed.
How does that parable go? A man scatters some seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he is asleep or whether he is awake, the seed of its own accord sprouts and grows, how he does not know.
It gives me enormous comfort. That’s us. We are each a seed planted in the ground. While we sit here, while we lie here, day after useless day, suspended in this invisible womb of waiting, something is sprouting, something is growing, how or what we do not know.
As darkness falls, Uncle comes into our room with the lantern. He sets it on the floor, pulls a chair in close and sits down. For a long while he is silent. When he finally speaks, he points towards heaven. “Allah wahid. Issau, Mohammed, Miriam shwaya.” He almost touches his thumb against his index finger to show how insignificant they are in comparison to God. “Allah kabir. Issau shwaya.”
We strain to understand him, piecing together what we can from his body language and the bits of Arabic we know. No one is like God, he tells us. Allah makes the rain, the wind, the rivers, the animals, the air. Who else does this? He pretends to dig a grave and points to the lantern. Do we want to be buried or cremated? Jesus, Mohammed, Miriam, Moses—they all were buried, put into the fire—where are they now? They’re all dead. They are small, shwaya. Allah kabir, Allah wahid.
We have feet, legs, hair, eyes, a mouth. So did Jesus and Mohammed. Allah has none of these things. Mohammed and Miriam were married, Allah is not. Issa had a mother, Allah does not. Jesus is not equal to God. Issa shwaya. For Muslims, all food must be halal. Christians are not halal. No drinking alcohol. Muslims must not steal. “No ali baba.”
His face is very grave as he speaks. He is telling us the truest and most important things. If only he could speak English he would convince us.
I tear a page out of my notebook and draw a map of Iraq with Baghdad in the middle. I show him how there are different roads coming from different cities, Basra in the south, Kirkuk to the north, Amman in the west and Tehran to the east. The roads begin in different places, but they all lead to the same place, to Baghdad. Baghdad is like God, and the different cities are like the world’s religions. Each religion offers a different road leading to God.
“La,” Uncle says indignantly. “Allah wahid. Allah wahid.” Baghdad is not like God. He goes through the circle of his argument again, point by point, lecturing us with his finger. The harangue lasts an hour. If we were Muslims, he tells us right before he leaves, he would have to release us.
Nephew and Uncle bring us downstairs to watch television. We wonder where Junior is. Could he be minding Tom at the first house? Their room is like a sauna. We take our sweaters off right away and sit facing the television. Uncle has the remote. He switches restlessly through six channels. The choices seem to be news or Arabic soap operas. We don’t understand a word, but it doesn’t matter. It is a relief simply to be out of handcuffs. I pretend I’m a normal human being who’s watching television with some friends.
“Chai?” they ask us.
“Yes!” we say. Uncle and Nephew scavenge for some cups. I force myself not to think about how dirty they are. They pour us tea from a blackened aluminum pot that sits on the soba. Uncle scoops sugar into our cups from a clear plastic bag, leaving trails of sugar behind each heaping spoonful. The tea slides down my throat like a healing balm, spreading an unfamiliar feeling of vigour.
Tom has been released, Nephew tells us. He’s in Amman. We watch the news carefully. I am mesmerized by the image of a jet taking off—the symbol of release, freedom, going home! There are no stories about Tom. We don’t know what to think. Perhaps our kidnapping is not of interest to anyone here. Perhaps it will be on the news tomorrow. Perhaps Nephew is lying.
This has been the most discouraging day so far, Harmeet says when we are settled in bed. Tom has been taken away, we don’t know what’s happened to him, we’re back to the three-day/four-day holding pattern. He thought about it all day, how Medicine Man said Tom didn’t need shoes. If he doesn’t need his shoes, that means they’re not planning to let him go. It’s clear Tom has been separated from us, we just don’t know why or what it means.
For a moment I am awash in grief. Tom! What’s happening to you! The feeling rises like a cataract and threatens to drown me. But then, something within me, sovereign and inexorable, sweeps it away and buries it deep in my psyche. A time capsule waiting to be opened at another time, on a day when I can walk free under a blue sky.
FEBRUARY 14 DAY 81
Medicine Man is on his way, Nephew says. He’s going to take a picture of Norman. To show “Madame” that he is still alive. They will send it by Internet. “Madame on television. Hazeen.”
Medicine Man arrives a short time later with a video camera. “Doctor,” he says, “I have to take some picture. This the final video for you.” He has three questions for Norman, sent by his wife, that only he knows the answer to: What is his wife’s maiden name? Who made Norman’s wedding ring? You have an unusual hobby—why?
Medicine Man films and Norman answers. Then he tells Norman to write down the answers on a piece of paper. I ask about Tom. Medicine Man says he is fine, there is no problem, he is at the other house. “We just have some problem with the road. It is not safe to carry you. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow. I must to check the way first.”
Norman asks if the negotiations are complete. “The news is good,” Medicine Man says. “There is only something, one, maybe two final things. I will come to carry you, maybe today, maybe tomorrow, and you go. I must to take your emails. In three, four years, when all of this is over, I come to visit each of you.”
Uncle shows us a zester, something he found somewhere in the house. Shoo? he asks, scrubbing his heel with it. Is it for shaving calluses? he wonders. No, we tell him, it’s for portugal, orange.
Harmeet points to the barricade of chairs in front of the window. Where does all this stuff come from? he asks.
From the people who used to live here, Uncle says.
How long ago was that? Harmeet asks.
Two years ago, Uncle says. The Americans raided the house and killed two people. The owners have four houses in Baghdad. They rented this to Haji Kabir for one million dinars a month. They’re still in Iraq.
Before us, who else was brought here? Harmeet asks. “Amriki? Australi? Italian?”
“Jaysoos. Iraqi najis. Iraqi killam.” After you leave, your chairs will be occupied by others: Australians, British, Germans.
“You are the peaceful people,” Nephew says to us. “Harmeet good.”
“Harmeet no good,” Harmeet jokes.
“Harmeet good,” Nephew says. “Jim good, very nice. Norman good. Tom? Tom hazeen.” Nephew makes a sad face in imitation of Tom. “Leaish?”
His question almost makes me snort. It might have something to do with being kidnapped, I almost blurt. “Tom doesn’t like to talk very much,” Harmeet says.
Nephew is priming us. He wants us to take him into our confidence. We’ve discovered recently that he has a penchant for gossip. The other day he referred to Junior as Hayder and Uncle as Sayeed. Today he tells us Medicine Man is from a wealthy family, that one of his brothers is an engineer, another a contractor. They have houses in Mosul, Baghdad and Fallujah. He is always moving around. He never sleeps in the same place twice.
“Shoo?” Nephew asks, not understanding.
Harmeet leans closer. “Tom shwaya killam,” he says.
“Yes,” Nephew says, nodding solemnly.
We are brought downstairs. “Movie! Movie!” they say. They settle us in front of the TV and bring us popcorn. It’s bizarre. Movie Night with the Captors. Tonight’s feature is Transporter 2. Frank Martin is a one-man martial arts army on a routine mission guarding the six-year-old son of the director of the National Drug Control Policy. Everything goes smoothly until the last day, when little Jack is kidnapped by the evil Gianni, a drug lord with a villainous plan to take over the world’s drug trade. Outnumbered at every turn and facing impossible odds, Martin risks life and limb in an inexorable quest to rescue little Jack, thwart the evil Gianni and save the day.
It fascinates and astounds me. Nephew and Uncle are cheering for Frank Martin! The Good Guy going after the Bad Guy who’s kidnapped an Innocent Victim. Somebody’s confused, I think. I look down at my wrists. The red marks from the handcuffs I’ve been wearing all day are still there. Let’s see, that means, yes, I’m one of the Innocent Victims. And Uncle and Nephew, they have the keys and the gun, so that means, yes, they have to be two of the Bad Guys. Excuse me gentlemen, I hate to interrupt the film, but seeing as you’re cheering for Frank Martin and all, I was wondering if perhaps you would maybe consider letting us go, I mean since he is the Good Guy after all, and we are the Innocent Victims …
And then it strikes me. In the movie they’re starring in, Uncle and Nephew are with the Good Guys. They’re fighting to save their country from the Bad Guys, who have invaded and occupied their country with tanks and Humvees and Apache helicopters. But the American soldiers they are fighting against, they’re in a movie too. I’ve heard them say it, this exact phrase, “We’re here to get the Bad Guys,” the insurgents, the mujahedeen, the men who are resisting their noble quest to bring democracy to a long-suffering people and save the world from Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Good Guy or Bad Guy, soldier or insurgent, they are both working from the same script, there is no difference except in the roles they have assigned each other. They have become the mirror image of the other through the means they have chosen.
FEBRUARY 15 DAY 82
The captivity changes in Tom’s absence. They laugh and tease each other more. Uncle’s hamam sounds, for example, have become a recent source of great hilarity. Our daily ration of food increases slightly. Uncle brings us oranges, Nephew carrots and dates. When we see Junior, it is in the evening. An hour or so before they get us up in the morning, a car starts in the driveway, idles for half an hour, then drives away. Our theory is that Junior is spending the day at the other house minding Tom. It is a prospect that fills me with dread.
A new evening routine develops. The captors come to unlock us, we stack our chairs and set up our bed, then we get our toothbrushes and follow them downstairs. If supper is ready, we wash our hands and sit on the floor. Most of our meals now, whether upstairs or downstairs, are served to us from a common plate. We eat with our hands free using pieces of flatbread or samoon to take bits of whatever we are sharing: potato, rice, scrambled egg, the fried slices of hot dog the captors call sausage. After supper the captors pour us tea—the hot, sweet comfort of it is beyond describing—and they converse with us as if we are friends who just happened to come by for a visit. Then it’s two or three mind-numbing hours of Arabic channel surfing. When it’s time to go back upstairs, usually around ten o’clock, we brush our teeth in the hallway sink, make a last quick hamam visit, and then we’re locked up for the night.
It’s a coin toss as to where time passes more easily: in the gloom room upstairs, or the captors’ living quarters downstairs. The relentless babble of the television is exhausting and the pretence of hospitality infuriating. I find myself longing to return to the stale darkness of our room. There at least, sitting in our handcuffs, everything is very clear, who they are and who we are, the nature of the relationship we are in.
There’s one thing that doesn’t change: the constant gnawing regime of fear. Sometimes it is a hot rushing dread that courses through your veins like a throbbing toxic ooze, but mostly it’s just chronic white noise, something you screen out and stop paying attention to even though it’s always there.
We have begun to see, as a result of this increased proximity, that our captors are afraid too. At the slightest sound they’re up and moving, bodies on red alert and eyes wide with listening, sneak-peeking through curtains, checking the other rooms or checking outside, sometimes returning with a gun. This reassures me somehow. It means they are just like us: anxious, vulnerable, human.
FEBRUARY 16 DAY 83
Nephew is unusually jumpy. We suspect he is the only one on duty. As if to assure us otherwise, he tells us Junior is downstairs sleeping. “Hayder sadika moor-reed. Sadika in hospital. Sadika very sick. No sleep for two days.” Then he says Uncle is very angry. “Sayeed go to the house.”
Which house? The house where Tom is? we ask. No, he says, “house of mother-father.” We have no idea what he means.
When Nephew leaves, Norman proposes an “expedition” to the window. We’ve been watching the shadow of a bird coming and going for several days now; Norman wants to know if there’s a nest on the window ledge. We make our way to the window, being very careful not to make any noise with the chain. It’s exhilarating, to be crossing this forbidden threshold, a chance to finally see what the world is like beyond these goddamned curtains.
“Well hello, we do indeed have a little nest,” Norman says delightedly.
“What else can you see?” I ask, fiercely jealous of Norman’s place at the end of the chain, his access to the window and ability to see outside.
“But the nest is empty,” he says.
“We’d better get back,” Harmeet says.
We are crossing back to our chairs, just about to sit down when we hear, “Shoo? What this?” It’s Nephew. At the door.
I immediately put my hands above my head as if I’ve been stretching. “Exercise, exercise,” we say. He doesn’t believe us. We don’t know how long he’s been standing at the door. We have to tell him the truth. “Tweet tweet, I like birds,” Norman explains, leading him to the window to show him the nest.
“La!” Nephew cries, shaking his head gravely. He’s going to have to tell Medicine Man. I feel strangely anxious, like a child afraid of his babysitter’s report to his parents.
We’ve watched several action-hero films now. The story is always the same. A lone individual (usually male), of exceptional courage, virtue and strength, is called forth to battle an evil nemesis (also usually male, but sometimes intoxicatingly female). The nemesis has upset the scales of justice, perhaps by killing an innocent victim, or he has an evil plan to take over the world, something which must be stopped at all costs. The action hero faces great peril, is betrayed, captured, wounded, tested to the very limits of human endurance, but in every case defies the impossible and triumphs in the end. Whereas the nemesis is greedy, ruthless, cunning, narcissistic, attended by sycophants, sadistic, vain, ugly, ultimately a coward and doomed to fail, the action hero is selfless, stoic, beyond temptation, proportional in response, humble, pleasing to look at, inexhaustibly determined, courageous beyond measure, inclined always towards mercy but realistic about the necessity of using violence, and destined to win.
I’ve grown to dislike this mythic staple of the entertainment industry intensely. It is the glorification of the individual. Only the individual counts, triumphs, overcomes, saves the day—never the collectivity. Never a union, a strike, a mass demonstration, people getting organized and working together. In this narrative there is only the hero who acts; only the hero who is chosen, set apart, called forth, elevated from the indistinguishable “common gardener” to make the required difference. We who constitute the rank and file of the inert herd must either equip ourselves for similar action-hero feats or sit on our hands for lack of action-hero capabilities. If we are not an action hero, we are without consequence.
The power of the enemy flows from another kind of rank and file, those who have given their individuality and agency to the nemesis in order to share in his formidable power and wealth. The members of this rank and file, the henchmen, have no name. No one cares about or even notices their destruction by the action hero because they are nothing more than disposable pawns. The action hero is the antithesis of the faceless, sycophantic host who attend the nemesis. He becomes an individual by accepting the call to exert his moral character and physical prowess in the pursuit of the good (i.e., stopping, or if necessary destroying, the nemesis).
It is surely no accident that it is those men who are most disempowered, men sitting around in prisons, men waiting for work, men dying for something to do in drop-ins, men under the orders of another man—in other words, men emasculated by the masculine—who are the most enamoured of, even addicted to, the action hero. He is like an injection of manhood for those whose lives offer no hope of achieving his sublime masculine individuality.
For a man to achieve the gravitas of being a man he must complete the rite of passage into the fraternity of those who count. In other words, the fraternity of the action hero, the one who risks everything in righteous battle against the nemesis. In the absence of such a true test (for alas, real life is rather mundane), the action film will do. For succeeding in the manner of the action hero, the archetype and arbiter of all things masculine, is surely a conceit for most of us. Let cheering the action hero on from the sidelines be therefore sufficient.
It is just before eight o’clock in the evening when Nephew enters the upstairs room with our samoon supper. There’s been no sign of Uncle or Junior all day. He must be alone. He puts it down on the hostess trolley, unlocks us, tells us to get ready for bed. We set up our bed, go to the bathroom, brush our teeth. We’re waiting longingly for our samoons when, much to our surprise, Medicine Man comes in.
“How are you?” he asks, standing over us like a monarch. We don’t answer. “How are you?” he says again, annoyed. Harmeet asks if there is any news.
Yes, he says. We should carry you to the other house but we cannot. Soldiers in the street, checkpoint, searching the car. Since Sunday I am checking, even today, one hour ago. It is not safe. He looks stressed. He says their chief was captured. Two days ago, at midnight. This is a big problem. We have no one to give the order to carry you. It is a problem like in any army. When you take the chief, the soldier can do nothing. He says there’s a committee that will decide who will take his place.
Nephew distributes our supper. They talk together with much laughing while we eat. They talk about us as if we’re not there, in the amused way adults will talk about children. When there’s a lull in their conversation, I ask about Tom.
He is fine, Medicine Man says. I just see him at the other house. He is resting, watching television, there is no problem.
I ask him how long he thinks it will take. Not more than one week, he says solemnly. He begins to ask us questions: how old are you, are you married, do you have children, what do you do for work. This shocks me. He knows nothing about us. Is it only now, after eighty-three days, that he is beginning to see us as people?
Medicine Man and Nephew converse in Arabic, point to the chain locked around Harmeet’s wrist. They’re observing how small his wrist is. It’s heavy, Medicine Man says, remarking on the weight of the chain.
It’s good, Harmeet jokes, flexing and squeezing his biceps as if he’s been using the chain to work out. This is just like Guantanamo, Medicine Man says. Our treatment is much better here, Harmeet says.
We got a lecture on Islam from the big man last night, Norman says. Medicine Man says we’ll exchange emails and discuss Islam and Christianity when we are released. Norman asks about the political situation in Iraq. It is very difficult, Medicine Man says. Norman asks if the new Iraqi Parliament is working well. No, he says, all of this is very difficult.
Harmeet asks for copies of the mujahedeen videos we were shown. He wants to take them home to show people what is going on in Iraq. Yes, Medicine Man says, I will bring for you. We have a new edition now, a sniper edition from Fallujah. I will bring it tomorrow. I am sleeping here tonight. I am just downstairs. Call me if you need anything, he says.
This confirms our theory that Nephew has been on duty alone. We have to start making a plan, I tell myself. With the Instrument of Grace, the red blanket and the element of surprise, Nephew is vulnerable enough that we can do it, but it will take all three of us. I resolve to bring it up with the others so we can start the process of figuring it out.
FEBRUARY 17 DAY 84
Much to our surprise, it is Junior who unlocks us in the morning. So much for our theory. Where’s Medicine Man? we ask.
Sleeping, he says.
Junior looks at us crossly. We’re asking too many questions.
We’re out of toothpaste, we tell him. He sends Harmeet downstairs to get some. The door to the common room is open. Harmeet peeks inside. Somebody is asleep. Who is it? Medicine Man? Uncle? Another captor altogether?
We don’t see Junior for the rest of the day and it is Nephew who keeps the watch. Who’s in the house, we wonder, and who is minding Tom? There are no sounds of coming and going through the kitchen door all day. Is it possible they’re using another entrance? It’s all very confusing.
I am beginning to wonder if I am growing narcissistic in my captivity. I went to pray yesterday, and initially it all revolved around my captivity: assessing how different people are being affected, and to what extent, and praying for them accordingly. I had to remind myself—my captivity is not the centre of the universe. So then my prayers became more generous, and I felt better.
My interest in our captors is waning, my interest in them as people. I find myself increasingly unenthusiastic about engaging them, trying to reach across this divide with small talk, little jokes, positive interactions. I am, of course, unremittingly polite and obliging, but really all I want is news, or release. That’s all! It’s become draining to relate with them, an imposition—and the suggestion that we will maintain contact after this is all over—well I find the idea ridiculous.
Medicine Man talks to us in the light of the lantern, his face all shadow. From the beginning, why do you think the negotiations have taken so long? he asks us. He points to where Tom used to sit. It is because of his government—they will not negotiate. They will do nothing. And the next most difficult government? It is the British. From the beginning you are safe, he says, pointing to Harmeet and me. Your government wants to get you out. But this man here, he says, again pointing to Tom’s place, there is the danger for him because of his government.
Norman asks about the video they took of him. There is no problem, Medicine Man says. We take the video to them, they see you are alive, the Canadian and the British are in Baghdad, we carry you to the house, one by one. Then one big push and you go, all together.
Including Tom? I ask. All together, including Tom, he says. The reason this is taking so long is because it must be secret. The CIA must not hear about these negotiations. If they do, they will cut them. The negotiations must be secret.
This seems impossible, like something out of a Tom Clancy novel. We know for sure that a direct link has been established with at least one government, the British, because of the three proof-of-life questions. Is it possible that one arm of the occupation is working against another? The thought chills me.
Norman and I make a plea for Harmeet. Unless he is released by Monday, we tell him, Harmeet will lose his school year. I not know this until you tell to me yesterday, Medicine Man says. Even if you are release tomorrow, you will not make it. The other side will take you to some camp, or the Green Zone, or the UN for your safety, and they will have some requirements before they take you out of Baghdad.
He turns to go. I ask if we might interview him about his views on the political situation, the aims of their group, whatever he’d like to tell us. He shrugs and smiles. To have some talk about the situation here, why it’s happened, we need to sit maybe for two, three hours, he says.
We have time, I say. He laughs. This is important, he says. I am here tonight, but … maybe tomorrow morning. You have your copy book and write, and we discuss the situation.
Thank you, we say. I am just downstairs if you need anything, he says.
FEBRUARY 18 DAY 85
We ask each captor once a day if they have any news about Tom. We choose the moment carefully. It has to seem casual and spontaneous, and the captor should have his guard down. Tom called it the captor-captive game—the constant process of reading and tiptoeing around the captors’ moods, figuring out how to please and pacify them, what and what not to ask for, when and how to do it, all the possible reactions and risks—what you have to do to survive when you’re living under somebody’s thumb.
Now, when we ask, they no longer say Tom has been released. Now they say, “Tom in house, Tom zane, shwaya shwaya you will go.” Junior, back on guard duty for the first time since Tom was taken, points to himself and says, “This go in car to Thomas in beit,” he says. “Tom zane.” His answer dismays me beyond words, to think of Tom being alone with Junior’s hatred all day.
Nephew puffs out his chest and pounds on it like Tarzan. If he starts to run and exercise in the mornings, he says, he will be in shape just like me. I ask him how to say “freedom” in Arabic. He doesn’t understand. I get one of the locks from our chain and show it to him. I close the gate and say with a sad face, “La freedom. Mozane.” I open the gate and say with a happy face, “Na’am freedom. Zane!”
“Yes!” Nephew says, suddenly understanding. He says the word is hooriya.
“Hooriya,” I say, lifting my arms above my head. I love it. It sounds like “hurray.” When I am free, I say, we can exercise together.
Yes, he says. Then he points to himself. I am not free. Every day I am here, I can’t eat or sleep at home with my family. All the time I am thinking about Tom, Norman, Harmeet, Jim. He points to his wrists as if he is in handcuffs. When you are free, I will be free, he says.
I make a sad face and a chopping motion with my hands—the sign we use to show the passing of many days. “La, la,” Nephew says. “One, two, three days and go. Big Haji, Sayyed, after one month all go. No house, no faloosfor us. Finished.”
FEBRUARY 19 DAY 86
Today, for the first time, all three captors eat from our dish: Nephew and Junior take a few small bites at lunch, and Uncle helps himself to a small portion at supper. They do it independently, spontaneously, without comment or pretence, as if they have always done this. It is immensely reassuring. It is a gesture that seems to say, despite these handcuffs and chains, this job we have to do, we are brothers.
Downstairs, killing time in front of the television, Harmeet sitting on the floor near the door, Uncle right behind him in a chair, me and Norman in the middle of the room, also in chairs.
Junior enters in his street clothes, loud, excited, agitated. He takes off his suit jacket and throws it on the coat stand by the door. Everything they wear is draped there: towels, dress shirts, track pants, ties. He has a gun tucked into his belt. He kicks off his shoes, goes to the bed in the opposite corner of the room, puts his gun under the pillow then returns to the doorway. He talks to Uncle as he undresses, face full of anguish and arms moving furiously. He undresses blindly and heaps his clothes onto the rack until he is standing in just his underwear and undershirt. He is oblivious to Harmeet sitting on the floor and stands with his groin just inches from Harmeet’s face. His things, covered in a jungle of black hair, bulge like his forearms. I glance quickly at the pillow: the gun, I’m only five feet away from it. Junior pulls his captor uniform out of the coat stand and puts it on. “Jim,” he says, shoulders suddenly drooping, “come on, massage.”
He flops himself down on the bed with his head facing the television and his feet resting on top of the pillow. I get up from my chair. The gun, it would be so easy to grab, I could have it in my hands before either of them have time to react. If I knew for sure it was loaded, if I knew how to use it, I could order them onto the floor face down with their hands on their heads and we would make our escape, just like in the movies.
Alas, I am a pacifist and I do not know how to use a gun, so I lay my hands on his shoulders and begin to massage. “Good,” he says, his face softening, easing into a smile. I keep one eye on the television. The news is on and I want to see if there’s anything about Tom. Without lifting his head, Junior rubs his left buttock, the place where his gun must press into his hip all day. “Jim, this, massage,” he whines.
I raise an eyebrow in astonishment. “This?” I ask, touching his buttock tentatively.
“Yes, this,” he says, in the same matter-of-fact tone one would refer to an elbow or knee. I want to say no, but I can’t. The word won’t come. I shake my head, aghast at what I am about to do. Surely this is crossing the line, I think. I’ve fallen headlong into it, Stockholm Syndrome, become an accomplice to my own enslavement.
When I finish, Junior turns onto his side, tucks his knees into his chest, pulls a blanket around his head and curls his hands under his chin. Within seconds he is snoring. Behold the man, Ecce homo, armed insurgent, warrior of God, sleeping innocent.
I pick up my notebook and begin to write: “It strikes me that the only thing that separates us is a gun or two, the willingness to use it, and a set of keys. We share the same mortal precarity, are tenants of the same house of captivity, sit chained by the same anchor of waiting.” I pause for a moment to think. Yes, we are the same, but we are also separated by two radically different and antithetically opposed desires. I continue writing.
The captor works within two overall dynamics or imperatives. Or we could also say, the captor requires two things from his captive: one primary, the other secondary (though no less necessary). The first: control and submission. The second: absolution.
With regards to the first, the captor needs a secure environment within which to hold the captive. The captor will prefer the captive’s willing co-operation, and will offer to entice his co-operation within the limits allowed by the imperative of security, but in the end he will do whatever is necessary to ensure the captive submits and is secure from escape. Once submission is secured, the captor will invariably begin to seek absolutions, or justification for the captivity. This arises as a consequence of the intensely intimate/intense intimacy of the captor-captive relationship. The captor cannot escape the task of having to come to terms with the humanity of the captive. The incarcerated humanity of the captive is an affront to the captor’s self-image and conscience. The fear, suffering, hunger, banality, vulnerability of the captive is reflected back to the captor as an interrogation of the captivity project. The reflection of consequences. The captor therefore seeks to confirm the meaning and legitimacy of the captivity by obtaining the absolution of the captive. Absolution offered by the captive in turn confirms submission.
The primary and singular task of the captive is the attainment of safety through release, escape or submission. The captive may adopt a strategy of thoroughgoing submission in order to allay the fears of the captor, and signal his willingness to co-operate in exchange for easements in the regime of captivity. The captive may adopt strategies that involve building bridges and humanizing himself in the eyes of the captor. Humour is a powerful tool in this regard. This strategy is aimed at destabilizing the contempt, or the ideological rationale, that initially motivated and justifies the capture, and obscures the humanity of the captive. It is a strategy based on a simple premise: it is more difficult to harm or kill that which has passed from being an abstraction/object of contempt/demonized other and has become a human being. These strategies are instinctive and pre-conscious.
FEBRUARY 20 DAY 87
I’m not sure, but I think he was trying to be funny. Nephew was explaining why he couldn’t bring us tea, even though we hadn’t asked for it. He said it was because there was no sugar, which we knew to be a lie, having seen a clear plastic bag full of it when we were downstairs last night. He pulled out a gun, invisible under a bulky sweater and tucked into his waistband at the left hip, and pointed it directly at Harmeet.
“Sugar? No sugar. Give me sugar,” he said, pretending to rob Harmeet for sugar.
His gun is worth $2,500, he told us. We looked at him with disbelief. Yes, he said, a peacock fanning his feathers, this twenty-five one hundred. He pointed the gun at the floor and pretended to shoot it seven times. We kill this many jaysoos, he said. His cellphone rang. “This Haji Kabir,” he reported at the end of the call, helplessly self-important. Any news? we asked.
“Shwaya,” he answered. “One day, two day, five day. Not long.” Everything has to be very secret. If the CIA finds out, there won’t be any deal. “Inshallah, not long, go to the house, one day, sleep, take new clothes and go. Everything okay.”
Nephew looked around the room to check that everything was in order. Then, excusing himself with a bow, he left.
Harmeet was furious. “So Nephew has a gun. That’s very impressive.”
“That was funny, eh? Give me some sugar or I’ll kill you,” I said.
“I bet it was plastic,” Harmeet said.
“It looked pretty real to me,” I said.
“They have plastic guns now that look real. He looked so ridiculous with it. All he deserves is a plastic gun. Yeah, you’re a tough guy—what are you going to do with a plastic gun?”
“We should have asked him if it was a lighter,” Norman joked.
“He did it to assert his authority because he was nervous. Medicine Man probably told him to do it,” Harmeet said. “All he needs is a fancy car and he’ll be all set for an action film.”
In the morning, a window-shaking explosion. Somewhere in Baghdad, a crater smoking with hatred, everything and everyone in its vicinity there is burning, bleeding, metal-twisted, shrapnel-shredded, wailing, running. Another day in the life of a war.
Last night, just as we were leaving to go back upstairs, Harmeet observed that Junior was crying while saying his prayers. “It looks as if somebody he cares about really is sick,” he said. When I heard that, I felt this little stab, a spontaneous desire to comfort him, make it better. Of course I am pretty much powerless to offer anything save a prayer, not speaking Junior’s language and being his prisoner. It’s an interesting mix of emotion: authentic compassion; desire for his good; reverence for his vulnerability; desperation to be away, free from his gun, his orders, his moods, his insecurity, this whole world he is part of that I’ve been swallowed by.
Last night, sitting on the rug (filthy with crumbs, bits, scraps, the detritus of human habitation), watching Transporter 2 for the second time, I felt like more of a captive than ever, that not only my body but my mind and soul too were chained. And this feeling—that wanted to be screamed in mantra, I want my life back!—I took in my hands, folded up and stuffed back down into the deep from which it arose.
I must somehow try to orient myself to the fact that this is my life. This is the reality I am in, the reality I must live. (This is the day the Lord has made! It is a blasphemy, but I must nonetheless write it: Yuck!) Scrape the barrel, then. Take your scrap of bread and wipe up the last vestige of oil from the empty food dish, and cling more desperately to gratitude than to the hope of release. Even if it is nothing more than a crumb that has fallen to the floor, bend down and eat.
But what does it mean, to say this is my life, this here and now, these interminable hours of deprival and vain anticipation? I do not know how to answer this question, beyond my morning exercise, brushing my teeth, washing my socks and underwear, trying to order my greasy hair without a comb—the details of trying to maintain some bodily dignity and viability. I do not know, beyond trying to cope and just continue on continuing. I think of #1’s question—how can I change my life—and I rephrase it: how can I live my life?
I do not know, he said. And neither do I.
There’s a sudden hubbub downstairs. Medicine Man is here. We can hear his laughter moving through the house and up the stairway. “Ha ha, chuckle chuckle,” I say.
“ ‘So then I showed them the gun,’ ” Harmeet says. “ ‘Ha ha.’”
When Medicine Man enters, he hands me a DVD. On the cover there’s a picture of a bearded man with soft eyes. “It is some video about salam, the Jesus man,” Medicine Man explains. “You will go downstairs to watch it in just five minutes.” He turns to leave. Harmeet asks if there is any news. “No,” Medicine Man says. “Just suddenly you will go. Phone call and go, all together. The British negotiator—and the Canadian—they are both in Baghdad. Like you, I am just waiting.”
What about the video of Norman? Harmeet asks. “We are waiting. They have not answered,” he says. Norman asks if there’s some reason why they’re keeping me and Harmeet if there’s no problem with the Canadian government. “As you know, the American man, Thomas, his government will do nothing. They not care about him. The British are cold. You and you”—he points to Harmeet and me—“you are safe from the beginning. So we have a plan from the beginning to take you as a group, to make the negotiating together. If we do not have the negotiations, we kill all of you. So we keep you to release together.”
I ask if it would be possible to talk with Tom on the phone.
“Why?” Medicine Man says. “I see him myself, with my own eye. Just today.”
Just a quick call, I counter, so we’ll know he is okay.
“I know that. I see him today.”
“You know that,” I say, unable to contain my rage, “but I don’t know that.”
Medicine Man stares at me. “I know that,” he says coldly, his voice slicing like a guillotine. Our eyes lock. My jaw clenches. I want to jump up and wrap my hands around his windpipe. There’s no way you’re going to win this, a voice says. I pull myself together, look away, let my shoulders fall.
I hear Norman’s voice cutting in. “You’ve kidnapped me, but it’s more like you’ve kidnapped my wife.” He breaks into tears. “I know that I’m alive, but she doesn’t. She’s the one who’s been kidnapped!”
Medicine Man’s phone rings. He pulls it out of his pocket, looks down, smiles. It’s a text message. “What’s this word, ‘kidnapped’?” he asks, distracted.
“What you’ve done to us!” Norman cries. “You take us from the street, handcuff us, keep us locked up …”
“This means kidnapped? Makhtoof?”
“Yes. Kid-napped,” Harmeet says.
Medicine Man puts his index finger against the wall. “How do you spell it?” he asks, writing each letter on the wall as Norman says it. “Yes, I see. Kidnapped. I’m sorry, Doctor.”
“You see,” Norman says, almost pleading, “I know that I’m alive, but my wife has no way of knowing.”
Medicine Man’s phone rings again. “Who is sending me another text message?” He looks at his phone and chuckles. “It is my girlfriend.” He puts the phone away. His face turns serious. “But that is why we take the video. She know, Doctor, she know. She give the three questions only you can answer.”
“But has she seen it?” Norman asks.
“The video is gone, Doctor. They have it.” He points to the DVD in my hands. “In five minutes you will go downstairs. I must to go. Good night.”
The guards unlock us and bring us downstairs. We sit on the floor and help ourselves to a small plate of fried potatoes, eating them one at a time with a stale piece of samoon. When it’s time for the movie, Nephew and Uncle are excited. “Issau salam, Issau salam,” they say. Nephew loads the disc into the player. The room falls silent. I’m tense, fully alert. I have no idea what this narrator is saying or how it might be received by our captors. Uncle points at the screen as Mary is visited by the angel who announces she is going to give birth to a son.
“Haram. La Islam,” Uncle says. It is forbidden in Islam to show images of God, Jesus, Mohammed or Mary. What’s this? Why are they doing this?
I worry Uncle’s indignation will escalate unpredictably. It doesn’t. He watches closely, muttering periodically as the movie progresses. Nephew looks torturously bored.
The story unfolds. The first disciples are called. Jesus wanders through countryside and village, teaching, giving sight to the blind, healing the sick, exorcising demons. He walks on water, confronts scribe and Pharisee, calls Lazarus out of the tomb, brings life wherever he goes. I imagine his words. “The last shall be first and the first last.” “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you.” “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do to me.” My arms shiver electrically. The acting is wooden, Jesus’s eyes are impossibly blue, the special effects are childish—but here it is, the Gospel! The good-news liberation of every human being from every kind of bondage. Somehow it has found us!
Then the inevitable confrontation. Jesus ransacks the outer precinct of the temple. The authorities are enraged. Jesus and the disciples go into hiding, gather around a table for one last supper. This is my body, Jesus says, do this in memory of me. He is betrayed, arrested, condemned, flogged, crowned with thorns, forced to carry the instrument of his execution in a grisly parade of state power. They strip him naked, nail him to a cross, hoist him into the air. Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
This is crazy, surreal, too much. To be watching the Crucifixion, in an insurgent safe house, in captivity, under the rule of the gun. “We kill all of you,” Medicine Man had said. Tom! Where are you? How are you enduring all on your own? Or is it much worse? Are you hanging now on a mujahedeen cross, shivering and forsaken, called like the suffering servant to a shock absorber of violence, one who carries the wounds of the world in his body? No, please God, not this. Not for Tom. Not for any of us.
FEBRUARY 22 DAY 89
I’m homesick, depressed. I feel like my spirit is dying and I am sick. Yesterday, last night, and to some extent now, I’m in that weird fever world, where my brain feels tender, swollen, brittle; and everything feels granular, angular, bent, warped out of shape. I feel always on the brink of a chill. I couldn’t bring myself to exercise this morning—the first time since our little morning regime began. My body, my mind just wouldn’t do it.
Last night, Norman said he’d gone back to being in on-hold mode, “which isn’t very useful to you two.” This, I think, is what I need to do as well. Expect nothing. But how long can one go on this way, living off the fumes of vague, repeated promises? We have literally been told three, four days since the first week of our captivity. This, more than anything, is what enrages me, being strung along by the nose, jumping like fools through a never-ending succession of empty hoops, trained pets who’ll sit up pretty for a little tidbit of news.
Tomorrow is Medicine Man’s “not more than one week” best guess. I, we, have got to get out of here. The Simonas went six months. The thought sends me sliding into the abyss. Another three months! Our lives have been stolen from us. I am in a rage: at myself, CPT, Bush and Blair, this mujahedeen group. The waste of sitting here, my right hand chained to the door handle, the left handcuffed to Harmeet. I am a seed buried deep in the bowels of the insurgency, a seed of hoping and waiting. God help me. To endure, persist, love. At the very least, deliver me from despair. Give me wings to carry me through these days. Give me the consolation of your presence. Give me a generous spirit so that I may reach out to the suffering of others, the endless host of those whose lives have been stolen by poverty, war, oppression. Give me to know that I am not the only one, that there is a solidarity of suffering in the Body of Christ, that no matter what happens, the cross is not the final word: There is Sunday morning! There is resurrection! There is Release.
Shwaya shwaya. This too shall pass.
Uncle thinks we enjoyed the Jesus video so much, we’re watching it again tonight. As he loads it into the DVD player, Junior asks me what I would do if the United States invaded Canada. He pretends he’s holding a machine gun. Would I not become mujahedeen, “Canada jaysh?” he says, pointing at me.
No, I say, I cannot kill anyone, not for any reason. “This Issa salam,” I say. I want to explain to him that there are other ways of resisting—there’s the power of non-violence, the power of Gandhi, Dr. King and the Badshah Khan—but where to begin, how to find the words!
“Majnoon, majnoon,” he says, laughing and making circles with his finger at his temple.
FEBRUARY 23 DAY 90
It is Junior who comes to unlock us in the morning. Harmeet tells him it is his sister’s birthday today. Junior nods sadly. His sister is very sick, he tells us, the doctors can’t help her. To comfort him, Harmeet says he is sorry, we will pray for her today.
Inshallah, you will be out for your sister’s next birthday, Junior says to Harmeet. He rubs his left buttock and complains of intense pain. Why? he asks me.
I don’t know. Could it be from driving?
Yes, back and forth to Fallujah every day. Too much driving, he says.
Junior has not been watching Tom at the first house then. Tom, what is happening to you? It’s been eleven days!
When they bring us downstairs, I immediately lie on the floor and close my eyes. I don’t care about the filth of the rug or what the captors might say. I’m desperate to rest my body. I hear Harmeet explaining to Junior that I am sick. “I am sorry,” Junior says to me. “Bacher duwa, bacher duwa,” he promises.
Harmeet lends me his sweater for a pillow. Norman gives Harmeet his tweed jacket and Harmeet covers me with it. I surf through the evening on waves of sleep and the babble of television, dimly aware of Junior whispering fervently on his prayer mat.
The captors have left. The door is closed. The darkness is a relief.
Dear God, I pray, help me. I can’t stand it here anymore. I want to go home. You order the stars and set the planets on their courses. Please, return us to our lives, our families, our loved ones.
The image of Junior praying for his sister strikes me like a thunderbolt. We are both praying to the same God! How can this be, when I am in handcuffs and Junior holds the key, when he is the oppressor and I am the one he oppresses? Is it possible that God can hear both our prayers at the same time? Who is this God we are praying to, lord of innumerable worlds and the incomprehensible reach of the universe? My mind whirls at the inexplicability of it and I fall into the sweet oblivion of sleep.
FEBRUARY 24 DAY 91
It was a strange night. Felt as if I didn’t sleep at all. How to describe it? Low fever incoherencies. My head and my body thoroughly inhospitable, both squeezing, trying to expel my consciousness. Sometime after dawn, I woke up sweat-soaked, and I felt normal—the greatest feeling in the world! I have little mental energy for writing. Another day of no exercises, save some slow walk-shuffling and climbing the stairs a few times.
News from Uncle. Clashes between Shia and Sunni. In Baghdad, Najaf, everywhere. Two days ago, he tells us, a Sunni mosque that was being fixed was bombed. No one was killed. A Jewish, American, Iranian conspiracy. Shia are not Muslims.
Yes, Shia are Muslims, I say.
They are noos Muslim, Uncle says. Only half Muslim.
I have Shia friends—they are Muslim.
He’s surprised. Shwakit? Kadim? Before or now? What do you want for lunch? Potato cooked in oil? La oil. Bad for the stomach. Every day oil.
FEBRUARY 25 DAY 92
The sound of martial law in Baghdad. No car horns, no arguments in the street, no donkeys clopping, no ping-ping-ping of propane vendors passing by. According to Junior, 141 Shia were killed in yesterday’s clashes. We ask him how many Sunni were killed. None, he says, smirking. It’s the newest nightmare scenario: civil war, armed chaos and complete social breakdown making delicate ransom negotiations impossible and exponentially increasing the risk of holding on to three hostage assets.
Baghdad falls silent and I fall into a netherworld of fever. Everything offends and provokes. Harmeet’s unfailing politeness, his wiggling toes, the crinkle of his copy book as he flips back and forth through its finger-soiled pages. Norman’s incessant gastro-eruptions, all-exactly-the-same-sounding, his fussiness of movement. I’m deathly irritable, sensitive, volatile, capable of spontaneously combusting with rage. I lose track of time. Nothing coheres or matters. The only thing I know is self-pity or rage.
During a break in the curfew, Medicine Man appears with a video camera. He wants us to make an appeal to the leaders of the Gulf Arab States—Sheik Khalifa, Prince of Benzyde Al Inhayon, and Sheik Hamid, Prince of Qatar.
I am furious. What the hell is this! How many more of these stupid, useless, goddamned videos do we have to do! What about “Big Haji in Baghdad”? What about “suddenly I get the phone call and you go”?
Medicine Man points his camera at me. I grit my teeth and sit up like a trick poodle. When the required speeches are done, I tell him I am sick, I need medicine, an antibiotic, something for pneumonia. I write the word down for him. He says he will get it as soon as he can.
The next morning I’m too weak to get out of my chair for morning exercise. Junior points to Harmeet and says, “This good. Harmeet zane, Harmeet happy. Norman noos-noos. Zane/mozane.” Then, pointing to me, “This no good. Mozane. Jim kool yom hazeen.” He wants me to be happy like Harmeet.
It’s too much. I am sick to death of grinning for him, pretending, putting up with his orders, his scorn, his contempt. Anger flashes white and explodes. I stand up and get in his face. “Don’t You EVER Tell Me What I Should Feel,” I say, enunciating each word with typewritten precision, voice flashing like a sword. “Not when I’M the one who has to wear these FUCKING handcuffs!”
Junior steps back, shocked, eyes wide. I sit down, shaking with rage, ready to kill. He clenches his jaw, threatens me with his fist, deluges me with words I can’t understand. Go ahead, I dare him with my eyes, even in handcuffs I will tear you to shreds. He mutters something and storms out of the room.
Nephew finishes locking us up. Norman and Harmeet ask him if they can lay the futon out in the middle of the room so I can sleep. “Yes,” he says, “mooshkilla, mooshkilla.” I collapse onto the mattress and fall asleep before Nephew can finish chaining my ankle.
The days are a fathomless void and a consuming agony. Prayer is useless. God is dead. There is only suffering without meaning or end. The nights are the worst. I think it’s a dream, but I’m not always sure—Medicine Man wearing a surgical mask and an operating gown, holding a scalpel and a bone cutter, butchering me into scores of little pieces that he lines up in perfect anatomical sequence and tortures with electric prods. Again and again and again.
When Medicine Man does come, I’m not sure he’s really there at first. He bends down to look at me, his face full of concern. I force myself to sit up. “You have some trouble with my man,” he says. “You must to understand. They are the simple man. They do not know these things. This very difficult, very dangerous, they have some stress. I speak to him.”
I ask if there’s any way I can see a doctor. “This may be something,” he says. “We have a doctor who work for us.” I tell him that I need an antibiotic and more acetaminophen. “I bring for you,” he says. The effort of it is too much. I collapse and fall asleep.
When my rage is spent, there is only despair. I turn to it like a drug. I imagine myself at the edge of an abyss. Everything around me is angry and black, bitter and boiling, except for the abyss, which is warm and sweet. I imagine myself sliding away, falling in, a door opening, the current taking me. Enough of this, no need to hang on anymore, all you have to do is let go. Just say yes and everything will be over. Wonderfully, deliciously, intoxicatingly over.
NO! a voice says. It is like a finger snapping, like a hand flicking a switch. It’s a force completely independent of me. It speaks only once. Something stiffens, takes hold within me, and I know immediately: I am going to live.
Bubble wrap packets of acetaminophen and an antibiotic appear, and a wondrous certainty blossoms like a spring orchard. God is not dead after all.
MARCH 3 DAY 98
Am feeling better. Enough, actually, to declare myself returned to the land of the living. Started a course of antibiotic yesterday that attacks pneumonia—only six pills!
My fever is definitely broken. I awoke this morning without a trace of it and the roundness seems to have come off the swelling in my neck. I had enough energy this morning to do a tiny bit of mild stretching, and some very gentle walking.
My body will recover—fully, I feel I can safely expect—but there’s a “but.” I think, if I haven’t already, I’m at risk of plunging into depression. I need to focus on the now, the day, be thankful that I am feeling better, the window is open, birds are singing. There is a cheerful shaft of sunlight illuminating our room. I have two brothers who have been looking after me.
MARCH 4 DAY 99
I suddenly understand the Psalms. I never could before, the repeating couplets that yearn and sigh and rail, the interminable laments, the innocent narrator besieged with enemies and afflictions at every turn. I used to yawn and roll my eyes: please, not again, spare me the high spiritual drama and holy persecution complexes. But now I know. The Psalms were never written for ordinary time, the place most of us live in most of the time, the everyday round of getting up in the morning and falling into bed at night, the hours in between cluttered with the thousands of things we have to do to get through the days and the weeks. No, the Psalms were written for the time of anguish and terror, when life is in peril and mercy is all that matters. They cry out for us when we are in extremis, facing the final hour alone and without hope, the time when God dies and there is nothing but suffering.
Alas, I do not have a bible. I decide to try and write my own.
My God, my God,
where have you gone, where can you be?
I speak but you do not hear me,
I call but you do not see.
My heart breaks open with crying,
weeping and gnashing of teeth are its song.
My spirit rolls in ash,
anguish has broken my soul.
The lions come for me,
their jaws dripping with juices.
Hyenas circle in the distance,
eyes watching with greed.
“Come quickly to my aid,” I cry.
“My time is at hand!”
But you, riding the heavens by moonbeam,
are too starfield far to hear.
Of me there is nothing left.
I am no more than gnarled bones,
lost and scattered to the far corners of the earth
shining in the moon’s forlorn light.
Though you measure the span of the universe
with the span of your finger,
but of my distress know nothing,
there is one last question I must ask, O God,
one thing I must know.
What of the days of my childhood,
when on summer days you held my hand
and wild we ran skipping sidewalk free?
What of our visits in secret forest glades,
the plunge and play in ocean surf,
the breathtaking climb of wild mountain heights?
What of waiting in the long of the five o’clock grocery line,
when in every face and every place you shone,
glory all around?
Your servant is waiting, O God,
waiting for the light of your face.
Send forth your chariot now
and come quickly to my aid.
Deliver me from this grave,
release me from this tomb.
Death’s paw is on my throat
and death’s door is open wide.
Always I have felt it, even as a young child, some sense of God’s presence in my life. In my breath, my heartbeat, the light and breeze around me, even if only as a whisper of a trace, always, always I have felt, known God was there. Except for these terrible days when I needed him most.
It has to be the most difficult of all human tasks: making sense of suffering. It confounds me, I don’t know how, I don’t think I can make sense of it. I know only it was pure hell and absolute desolation. But today, the feeling I have always known in the deep of my being has returned. God is alive!
I am filled with strange and wonderful tears. Those days when God had died, they are a gift, a window through which I can see what I never could before: how much I love and need God, and how intolerable life would be without him.
MARCH 5 DAY 100
One hundred days of handcuffs and chains. One hundred days of being reduced to this penury of waiting. A grisly milestone indeed. But I am secretly exhilarated. We’ve done it. We’re here. We’ve somehow got this far. As much as the thought sickens me, if I can do this, I can do another one hundred. And if I can do another hundred, I can get through a year.
I decide to commemorate the day with a letter. I think for a long time before I choose my greeting. I finally decide on “My dear Dan.” This should not give away too much.
Despite Norman’s obstinate assertion that this day is just like any other, one hundred days in captivity does seem like a bit of a milestone, significant at least as a marker of deprivation, and the necessity of enduring deprivation. Why, we ought to celebrate, bake a cake, string up balloons, invite people over … but then of course, directions are a bit of a problem, and our existence is a minor anti-state secret, and besides, there’s nowhere for people to sit. It would be easier, too, perhaps even possible to celebrate, if there were some end in sight, but alas there is none. Not even an indication of a clue of a possible day of release. The horizon before us is blue and clear with waiting. The only comfort is that when you get to read this, it all will finally be over, the never-ending immediacy of it vanquished by the hand of time. The time between now and then reaches before us into mystery.
I put down my pen. I can’t do it. Something’s not right. This is not the letter I want to send to Dan. It’s too clever, too glib. What I want is to pour my heart out, acknowledge the suffering this must be for him, tell him how much I miss him. I cannot write such a letter. Not here.
I change tack abruptly. I have been considering this for some time now. A letter of appeal directly to the bosses—the invisible higher-ups who are giving the orders, pulling the strings. Something that says, Please, let us go. Respectfully: Norman Kember, Harmeet Singh Sooden, James Loney, in absentia Tom Fox.
It sickens me, how hierarchy displaces responsibility, how the people who have to face us each day, deal with our smells, bring us our food, see our underwear and socks hanging about drying, they do not feel responsible for what they are doing. They’re just following orders. Someone else, someone above them, someone who doesn’t even know what we look like, they’re the ones who are responsible, the ones who make the decisions. They sit behind their big desks and swivel in their important chairs, never having to look us in the eye, see our fear, smell our degradation. We are safely abstract, little pawns that can be moved around and disposed of without effect. Every hierarchy is like this. It separates the finger that pushes the button from the bomb, the bomb from the blast, the blast from the carnage. It protects those who are responsible from having to face the consequences of what they decide, and absolves those who implement the decision from feeling responsible for what they do.
I think this is why we have never asked, never said it directly: Please, could you let us go. It seems futile, to ask the guards or Medicine Man for the return of our freedom, when it’s not their decision. And it is too much to ask. If they are prepared to risk their lives and defy the orders they are obligated to follow, because they are compelled by our humanity and theirs to do the right thing, then so be it. But I cannot ask these men to die for my freedom. They must decide this for themselves.
We have been asked to appeal to the governments of the United States, Great Britain and Canada, as well as leaders of various Arab Gulf states, for help in securing our release. As we understand you are the individuals responsible for making decisions about our release, we would like, on this one hundredth day of our captivity, to make a direct appeal to you for our release.
As you know, we came to Iraq on a mission of peace, to build bridges between the people of Iraq and the people of the West, and to try and share with the ordinary people of our countries the stories of ordinary Iraqis in a time of war and occupation. In this way, we wanted to be a small part of turning the tide of public opinion against the continuing occupation of Iraq by the United States and Great Britain. We remain firm in our convictions and our commitment to peace.
In the name of God, the Merciful and Compassionate, Lord of every human being—
I am just about to write it, the crucial words, let us go!, when Medicine Man arrives. It’s his fourth visit in seven days. He’s becoming a regular. Today he says the Canadian negotiations are strong and on track. The minister of foreign affairs is in touch with their negotiator and he wants the matter completed. It’s just a matter of transferring the money.
The minister of foreign affairs! My hearts thrills with hope. Is that Pierre Pettigrew? I ask.
No, it is something like Mac-kay, he says.
Mackay? Who’s that, I wonder. There must’ve been a cabinet shuffle.
There’s a British lord working on the case, Medicine Man says, the same one who sent the three questions for Norman. “There is some movement, but the British are cold.”
I summon my courage to finally ask it: How much money are they negotiating for? “Two million,” he answers. “Two million, for each of you.”
It’s mind-boggling! “Two million, for each of you.” We are valuable commodities indeed. This means contact has been established with our governments, they know we’re alive and they’re trying to get us out. What remains is securing the agreement and negotiating the logistics of transferring the money. My best guess is that it will take another month.
It sickens me when I realize that Medicine Man made no mention of Tom. I’m beginning to suspect that he’s been killed.
Harmeet is in the middle of his check-in. “I feel we’re quite safe,” he says. “As Medicine Man says, we just have to wait.”
I take a deep breath. Here is confirmation of what I have long suspected, that Harmeet and Norman are in denial about the reality of our situation. It repulses me, the creeping passivity of captivity, how it infects and corrupts us, like a soothing intoxication, a tranquilizing palliative. There’s nothing you can do, it whispers, the decision is out of your hands, relax and let the current take you, you just have to wait, it’ll be okay, waiting you can do.
NO! I want to rail and scream. We have to act, get ready, be vigilant for the opportunity whenever it comes. It’s impossible to describe, the dismay, the disgust, the rage it evokes, sitting here, day after day, holding out my hands for them to handcuff, the polite smiling and servile obedience. The cry rises from every molecule in my body. This is not living! I want to live!
“We are not safe,” I interrupt, breaking the golden rule of check-ins. “Not for one minute. We could be raided, things could suddenly deteriorate in the political situation, there could be civil war. The captors could have a change of command. They could be forced to kill us to protect their ongoing operations. Until we get out of here, anything can happen.”
“I know all that,” Harmeet says tightly. “I’m just saying that the negotiations are looking good.”
“And I’m just saying we have to be ready to take things into our own hands. We know that Medicine Man is a liar.”
The check-in stops. We fall silent for a long time. As my anger subsides, I fall deeper into dismay. It could be that they’re right. There are three basic strategies for survival, I think: dig in and fight, run away, or adapt. If I was able to reconcile myself to waiting, adapt the way Harmeet and Norman seem to have, perhaps I’d suffer less. But I can’t. I abhor adapting, I’m not built for it. Everything within me wants to act. If I can’t fight, I have to flee.
I flop about like a fish that’s been landed in a boat. There’s no answer to it. Waiting is one survival strategy, escape another. The risks of an escape attempt are momentous, but so are the risks of doing nothing. It’s a gamble either way and we have no way of knowing. Regardless of what we choose, we have to face our situation as it really is. Denial can only lead us to doom.
MARCH 7 DAY 102
Two million dollars. I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s mountainous, startling, incomprehensible. I am being claimed by my government, despite working for an organization that will not under any circumstances pay a ransom. It sickens me, the thought that the purchase of my freedom will be used to buy more weapons to kill more people. I intend to keep the commitment I made when I joined CPT. I won’t ask for it, but neither will I object if a ransom happens. In fact, I am secretly hoping it will. I want too much to be free.
“Do you have any news about Tom?” I ask.
Medicine Man looks stressed. “Yes, he is still at the other house. We have some problems, so we separate him. You know his government will not negotiate for him. The CIA is trying to prevent the negotiation. They do not want the exchange to happen, so it is taking a long time and the negotiation very slow. We announce that we kill him—to separate your case. But we not kill him. He will be released with you. We just make this announcement to some media.”
Kassie! Andrew! The weeping, wailing, mortal anguish of such news. It is unconscionable! An outrage! To make them think Tom has been killed for the sake of putting pressure on the Canadian and British governments. And I said nothing. I simply didn’t think of it. I was so busy assessing the implications of his statement for my release, so preoccupied with securing my freedom, that I did not see the consequences for Tom’s family. Unable to see, therefore unable to act. I am revolted at myself.
Downstairs with the captors. We pay close attention to the news. There’s a brief story about us. Twenty seconds or so of the video Medicine Man shot eight days ago, our appeal to the leaders of the Gulf Arab States. It is strange, bizarre, surreal beyond words, to see oneself this way, on television as a hostage, being spoken about in a language you can’t understand, from the very place you have been disappeared. Life really is stranger than fiction.
Ominously, there is no image of Tom. Neither do we hear his name spoken. We never ask after Tom’s welfare again.
The nightly security protocol changes. The person in the middle—usually me—is no longer handcuffed twice. Harmeet and I can now sleep with one hand free. Norman, chained by his ankle, has both hands free. We no longer use the Instrument of Grace.
MARCH 8 DAY 103
The captors have moved and taken up residence in what we think used to be the dining room. It is a cavernous space—perhaps fifteen feet wide and forty feet long—divided in half by a custom hardwood cabinet full of shelves and doors for storing dishes. The entrance to the room is just opposite the hallway sink, a few steps from the kitchen. The wall to the far right is banked with red velvet curtains that hang in front of windows that look onto the driveway. There’s one sleeping mat against that wall, another in the middle of the room facing the television. The room is illuminated by a fluorescent light that’s been hotwired into a wall-mounted light fixture.
We sit facing the television along the wall opposite the curtains. The floor is covered by an ornate Turkish carpet with red and blue designs. The other half of the room is shrouded in darkness. It appears to be a grand parlour full of stately furniture protected by white sheets.
“I wonder why the sudden change?” I say.
“It was probably easier for them to move to a new room than it was to clean up their old place,” Harmeet jokes.
MARCH 9 DAY 104
It was a completely unremarkable day. I search my notebook for a sign or a clue. There is none. I remember there was a fierce windstorm in the night. I remember I was still recovering from my illness. The window was open during the day and the light that filtered into the room was warm and healing. Sometimes I sat with Harmeet and Norman, but mostly I slept. The captors were still allowing me that luxury during the day.
I remember that Uncle was taking Harmeet downstairs to do laundry. Uncle had discovered a washing machine that actually worked. Harmeet was just stepping into the foyer when I grabbed the two upholstery covers Tom had used as blankets. Here, take these, I said. The nights were getting warmer and I thought it would be a good idea to wash and have them ready as an alternative to the heavy red blanket. I remember smelling the covers, hoping to catch a last trace of Tom’s scent. It was faint, but I could still make it out.
They found Tom’s body early in the morning. Some reports said it was in a ditch along a piece of wasteland next to a railroad track, others that it was outside a kindergarten. Some said it was in the district of Mansour, others Daoudi. His hands and feet were bound, his body wrapped first in a blanket and then in black plastic bags. The autopsy said there were eight bullet wounds to his head and chest; he had not been dead long—at most a few hours—and there were no signs of physical torture.
Our families and CPT were all given the news at the same time, in the early afternoon of March 10. They were told a body believed to be that of Tom Fox had been found the day before and the process of confirmation with fingerprints and DNA was under way. The team offered to identity the body but U.S. officials said no. The team asked where the body was and they said it was likely already on its way back to the United States. At 8:00 p.m. EST the U.S. State Department confirmed it was Tom and CPT held press conferences in Chicago and Toronto two hours later.
The officials “misspoke.” The body was still in Iraq, at Anaconda Air Force Base near Balad, awaiting transport to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for an autopsy. When the team found out, Beth Pyles went immediately to see if she could accompany Tom’s body home. They said yes, and Beth waited at the base for two days. Then they said no. The Army Reserve Mortuary Unit, whom Beth got to know and greatly respect, allowed her to escort Tom’s body into the cargo hold of the plane. His casket was draped in an American flag. The soldiers said goodbye with a salute, and she read from John’s Gospel with tears. “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”
She waited on the tarmac as the soldiers carried a second casket into the plane. To her astonishment, it was the remains of an Iraqi detainee who had died in U.S. custody. He too was being taken to Dover for an autopsy. Even in death, she thought, Tom was accompanying Iraqis. Through more tears Beth recited for both men a verse from the Book of Job: “Naked I came into the world, naked I will depart. The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” And then, in the only Arabic she could think of, “Bis m’allah … Allah ackbar.”
The plane took off at 9:00 a.m. EST on March 12—the same day a memorial service was held for Tom at a Catholic church located near the CPT apartment in Baghdad. Anne Montgomery and Rich Meyer, both CPTers, watched outside the fence as the plane touched down at the base at six o’clock the next afternoon. Tom’s children, Kassie and Andrew, and their mother, Jan (accompanied by Rich and CPT co-director Carol Rose), went to see Tom’s body on March 16. After the viewing and a time of prayer, Tom was immediately cremated. Some of his ashes were scattered by his children at a favourite spot of theirs called Great Falls, and then at a place in the Shenandoah Mountains that Tom had designated.
On March 19, the team’s driver took Maxine and Anita to a place called Hay Eladel, a strip of wasteland located along a railway track located in the Baghdad neighbourhood of Andaluse. This, they had been told, was where Tom’s body had been found. It was one of the most dangerous things they did while on team. They covered their heads with abiyas and Max wore a jubba, the long black coat commonly worn by Iraqi women. They got out of the car briefly to survey the rubble-strewn railway margin. A passerby told them the bodies of Iraqi men were dumped there regularly. They drove to another location a few minutes away to hang the funeral banner. You see them everywhere in Iraq: wide bolts of black cloth with white writing, erected on poles at street corners or hanging from buildings. This one they hung on a wall overlooking an expressway. They wanted as many people to see it as possible. In memory of Tom Fox in this place, it read in Arabic. Christian Peacemaker Teams declares, “We are for God, and we are from God.” To those who held him we declare, God has forgiven you.
In the customary way, the first sentence announced Tom’s death; the second sentence offered a traditional condolence from the Quran; the third sentence was a message for his killers reminding them of CPT’s unwavering intention. When they went back to get it a week later it was still there, unmolested and intact, exactly as they had left it.
We do not know any of this until much later. Nor do we know that Tom sat down to write on the evening of November 25, the day before our kidnapping, a reflection for CPT called “Why Are We Here?”
It’s the ultimate question, really. Why are we here? Whether we’re cleaning up after dinner or facing a gun, the earth turns, the sun rises and sets, the seasons come and go. We all have to find our way somehow. We have to make sense of the turning, the rising and the setting, the coming and going of our lives, whatever the here is that we’ve been given to live. It’s the task God has breathed into us. True to his serious and thoughtful nature, Tom spent his last night as a free human being deliberating on this question.
I offer it now as his last will and spiritual testament. It was what the arc of his life pointed to, what he fought to live each day we were chained together, what he aspired to, I’m sure, until his very last breath.
The Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) Iraq team went through a discernment process, seeking to identify aspects of our work here in Iraq that are compelling enough to continue the project and comparing them with the costs (financial, psychological, physical) that are also aspects of the project. It was a healthy exercise, but it led me to a somewhat larger question: Why are we here?
If I understand the message of God, his response to that question is that we are to take part in the creation of the Peaceable Realm of God. Again, if I understand the message of God, how we take part in the creation of this realm is to love God with all our heart, our mind and our strength and to love our neighbours and enemies as we love God and ourselves. In its essential form, different aspects of love bring about the creation of the realm.
I have read that the word in the Greek Bible that is translated as “love” is the word agape. Again, I have read that this word is best expressed as a profound respect for all human beings simply for the fact that they are all God’s children. I would state that idea in a somewhat different way, as “never thinking or doing anything that would dehumanize one of my fellow human beings.”
As I survey the landscape here in Iraq, dehumanization seems to be the operative means of relating to each other. U.S. forces in their quest to hunt down and kill “terrorists” are, as a result of this dehumanizing word, not only killing “terrorists,” but also killing innocent Iraqis: men, women and children in the various towns and villages.
It seems as if the first step down the road to violence is taken when I dehumanize a person. That violence might stay within my thoughts or find its way into the outer world and become expressed verbally, psychologically, structurally or physically. As soon as I rob a fellow human being of his or her humanity by sticking a dehumanizing label on them, I begin the process that can have, as an end result, torture, injury and death.
“Why are we here?” We are here to root out all aspects of dehumanization that exist within us. We are here to stand with those being dehumanized by oppressors and stand firm against that dehumanization. We are here to stop people, including ourselves, from dehumanizing any of God’s children, no matter how much they dehumanize their own souls.
I thank God for you, Tom. For your life, your courage, your witness, your friendship. How I wish you had made it too.
MARCH 10 DAY 105
Delta Force 3: The Killing Game. If I had to guess, I’d say the movie was made in the late eighties. The bad guys, this time, are fanatical Islamists intent on waging a global Jihad against Western freedoms. The good guys, a team of Delta Force commandos, have been ordered by the U.S. president to capture an Islamic terrorist mastermind and foil his evil plot to explode a nuclear bomb on live TV in New York City.
At the end of the film, Junior gets his gun from under his pillow and points it at the TV. Najis, he howls. La! La! he rages. American soldiers are weak, stupid, effete, incapable of the heroic bravery and special forces prowess shown in the film. He stands up, waves his arms, hops up and down, almost to the point of frothing. He puffs out his chest, points to Uncle and himself. They could easily kill ten American soldiers between them, he boasts. Uncle laughs in hearty agreement.
It fascinates me. They have not understood that this movie is about them. They are what the finger of this movie is pointing at, freedom-hating, suicide-bombing terrorists that George W. Bush invaded Iraq to save the world from. They do not see that this movie is the most dangerous weapon being aimed at them, that it is far more powerful than any tank or gun or bomb because it explains and justifies why they must be destroyed. I wish, instead of pointing his gun at it, Junior would leave the theatre altogether.
MARCH 11 DAY 106
It’s official. I’m back in the land of the living, sitting with Harmeet and Norman against the wall in plastic-chair hostage formation. Time here moves more slowly than it does in sick bay, where I could sleep at my leisure.
Medicine Man arrives at about 11:20 a.m. He has a video camera and a newspaper. He’s going to film us holding the newspaper. All we have to do is say the name and the date. Who is the video for, we ask. The Society for Peace Between Canada and Iraq, he says. I wonder if this is a government front for transferring the ransom money.
We ask if there’s any news. He shakes his head. Britain is still cold. Things are moving slowly with the lord. He is frustrated. “This should only be one month, not two, three, now four. This is the big problem. I talk with my chiefs in a worried way about this—the delay, the risk for us—and they give to me the decision. Now we just take some money—any money—and release. All of you. We have to finish the matter. Now it is just money. There are two people between me and the negotiator, but I am the one who make the decision. It should not be this way, going on for so long.”
After taking the video, he holds up the newspaper. “Do you know what this says?” he asks us. He reads the headline—something about how the Sunni political parties have fallen into disarray. “It is very bad,” he says, shaking his head. He seems despondent, tired, almost desperate.
Junior is beside himself with boredom. He stands in front of the TV with the remote, clicking through the eight stations. Soap opera, news, soap opera, news, soccer, commercials. He curses the television and throws the remote onto his mat in disgust. He takes his Quran and sits cross-legged on the floor. Nephew lounges on the mat against the wall. The room feels claustrophobic, filled with the bored agitation of its five captives.
Junior puts his Quran to the side and lies cruciform on the floor, covering his face. He gets up, kisses his prayer rug, unrolls it in front of the TV, kneels down and begins his evening prayers with great heaviness. When he is finished, Nephew takes the rug from him and steps out of the room. Junior lies face down on his bed. “Come on, Jim, massage,” he says.
“La, la, ani mooreed,” I say.
“Massage sit down,” he pleads.
I laugh and pretend for a moment that I’m going to sit on him. What are you doing? I think, suddenly panicked. That was not smart at all. Luckily Junior does not react. I kneel down beside him on the mat. “Shwaya massage,” I say.
Harmeet asks Junior if he can have the remote control. “Na’am, na’am,” he mumbles.
Harmeet takes the remote from his bed. He finds an English documentary about Iranian transsexuals. A young man is being interviewed on the eve of his sex change operation. He’s radiant. He tells the interviewer he can’t wait for the operation so that he can really begin his life as a woman. There are interviews with his doctor, what appears to be a social worker, his mother. My eyes fill with tears. It’s people like him whose lives are the real frontier of human progress, I think.
Nephew returns from saying his prayers just as the documentary is concluding. He’s frustrated that there’s nothing worth watching on the TV. “La cable. Mooshkilla.” He takes the remote from Harmeet, changes the channel to al-Hurra news, yawns, scratches his belly, lies down on his mat. And then we see it. The top news story. A poster-board shot with all of our faces and names. The camera focuses on Tom. Then Tom blindfolded and wearing an orange jumpsuit. Then a road, the camera moving in on a spot on the ground and—the channel changes. Nephew is pointing the remote at the television. “Shid ghul Tom?” Harmeet says to Nephew.
Nephew sits up. He says something about a prisoner exchange, Tom is okay, he’s at the other house, they’re just doing a show about him this week, next week it will be one of us. He is lying.
I finish Junior’s massage and return to my chair. Junior gets up and puts Time Cop into the DVD player for the third time.
MARCH 12 DAY 107
Nephew asks Harmeet to go downstairs to help him in the kitchen—just before breakfast and again right after. I am jealous. I would give just about anything to be in his place, handcuff free and doing something useful, reconnoitring escape possibilities.
Harmeet gives us a full report when he returns. Nephew said the news was good for me and Harmeet. He made Harmeet promise not to tell Norman: Harmeet and I will be released first, then Norman, then Tom. There’s a prisoner in the United States they’re trying to get out in exchange for Tom—Omar Abdel-Rahman, the man who was convicted of bombing the World Trade Center in 1993. Harmeet asked about Tom. Nephew repeated his story about how they’re doing a profile on each of us. Harmeet told him how Medicine Man had said they were going to announce to the media that they had killed Tom. Nephew repeated the story about the prisoner exchange.
I ask Harmeet what Nephew had him do.
“I washed some dishes first and then helped to clean the floor. He threw some water on the floor. I had this worn-down broom to scrub the floor with and he had a squeegee to push the dirty water into the drain. He didn’t seem to want me to do a good job, though. I’d be digging into it, wanting to really clean, and he’d say that’s enough. It was quite dirty but he just wanted to do a quick little rinse, it seems.”
I have to know. “Do they use hot water for their dishes?” No, he says.
I remember feeling, when we were first promised “copy books” by Medicine Man, a little pang of disappointment. If we had asked, if we had received them earlier, I could have kept a journal chronicling our story, replete with spiritual bons mots and inspiring deep thoughts—something that could be published and, in a vain flight of fantasy, thereby join the pantheon of incarceration journals: Martin Luther King, Anne Frank, Etty Hillesum, Alfred Delp, Eugene Debs, etc.
So now I have paper, a pen, copious measures of time—have had this facility now for thirty-nine days—and I have to face it: I’m pretty darn banal, superficial, weak, limited in my ability to transcend the choking hold, the suffocating confines of our captivity. I won’t be writing a great prison journal. This record, if I get to keep it, which I won’t know until the day of release, will merely document my self-absorbed efforts to survive, get through the excruciating crawl of time, cope with the various deprivations that define this miserable limbo, illustrate the emptiness and profound limitations of my will, my mind, my emotions, my spirit.
I think of Etty, the amazing generosity and expansiveness of her spirit, how you can see her shining in those last handful of days, a Jewess in a concentration camp awaiting deportation to the Final Solution. I, meanwhile, am preoccupied with my sore throat; whether or not to take more antibiotic; choking down stale samoons; bemoaning the lack of food and the thoughtlessness of our captors; wondering if I will finally get a comb today, after asking repeatedly over the course of almost two weeks. How could she? How did she open herself so much and give so much? How was she able to reach beyond the anxieties of physical comfort, survival itself? I at least have the consolation (though possibly illusory) of a hope and an expectation of getting out of here. Etty had to have no such hope, yet she shines with a breathtaking generosity of spirit.
I’m afraid I’m not shining very much. I say this not to berate myself—really, what’s the point of that? It is as a statement of fact and a reality for reflection: I’m a compromised compromiser who’s willing to barter silence, complicity, co-operation and lassitude in exchange for the hope (promise?) of physical survival, release from captivity.
Case in point: Medicine Man’s outrageous statement that they will use a public statement of Tom’s death as a strategy for moving the Canadian and British negotiations forward to conclusion. I said nothing. I did not challenge him. I failed to be a voice for Tom’s children, for Tom himself.
There are other examples. Every day that I eat, comply, co-operate with the directions of my captors, I am helping to put money in their pocket. This is not what I want. It is profoundly disturbing to think that my life will be bought back for two million dollars, and be used to kill and maim more American soldiers—beautiful young men and women who should be at home figuring out how beautiful and amazing they are—more Iraqi police and soldiers, or Shia, or whoever is determined to be public enemy #1. Blood on my hands.
This is not moral scrupulosity. It is merely a fact. I am a cog that’s helping to turn the war machine, and I’m not willing to gum up the works. I want out. I want to go home. I’m willing to accept and live with the facts of this compromise. I don’t expect it will keep me up at night. I am weak, afraid of consequences, torture, death. I do not, of my own accord, possess the action-hero testosterone to stand tall in the saddle and go to the wall no matter what. If that time ever comes (as well it may), and if I’m able to stay any course of moral integrity, it will be God’s grace and gift that will be acting—nothing of me. What Norman says of himself is absolutely applicable to me: I am feeble. Everything about me is limited: my will, my understanding, my willingness to risk, (especially!) my generosity. Even something as banal as the capacity to entertain myself. There is no power, no capacity I am in possession of that can’t be exhausted or crushed. Not even, I’m afraid to say it, my faith, my ability to love.
I think that’s what I learned during those days of being sick, feverish, without the relief of painkillers, when my captivity was a constant stench in my nose. I learned that there are and there will be times in our lives when we will merely exist, when we will stumble through a landscape of desolation, when suffering can’t be comforted or ameliorated, when we will feel that God has withdrawn, disappeared, when there is no possibility of meaning or hope or anything but somehow, second by second, trying to endure the relentless crush of suffering, and we begin to see/understand that it is entirely possible to be crushed, and maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing because it offers a way out, an end. Perhaps there is a door of despair for all of us to pass through. It is just a fact, something difficult we can’t avoid, a season of a human being’s life. Even Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me.”
Perhaps I am too quick to universalize. Perhaps there are a holy handful who live their lives—and deaths—with the constant comfort and an awareness of God’s presence. But I am suspicious of any such claims …
It starts with a question. “Do you see a cat on the wall, there above the window?” I ask.
“Where?” Norman says.
“It’s next to the ogre,” Harmeet says, pointing to the shape next to it in the water-damaged plaster. Yes, Norman sees it.
“You can see two very distinctive eyes,” I say. “The right eye, it makes the cat’s face seem quite vicious.”
“ ‘Tiger tiger burning bright/in the forests of the night,’ ” Harmeet says, reciting William Blake.
“ ‘What immortal hand or eye/could frame thy fearful symmetry?’ ” Norman adds.
“What happened to his rhyme?” I say. “It clunks.”
“It’s a half-rhyme,” Harmeet says.
“That’s just what they call it when they can’t make their rhymes work,” I scoff.
No, Harmeet says, Blake is trying to call attention to those words. The poem is about evil, and the idea that nature holds within it a reflection of its creator, just like a work of literature, or any artistic creation. And so he’s asking, what does the existence of violence in the world say about the nature of God? What does it mean to live in a world where a being like the tiger is beautiful—and horrific—at the same time?
“Are there other parts of the poem that clunk?” I ask.
Norman explodes. “Really, I must object to your use of the word ‘clunk.’ This is William Blake you’re talking about. His poetry does not clunk!”
I’m taken aback by Norman’s anger. “Well, in this instance it does.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about! When you can write poetry as good as William Blake, then maybe you can criticize.”
I turn to him, shaking with anger. “Don’t tell ME what I can say or think!” I cry.
“Very well, I withdraw that,” he says. “But you need to be more careful about whom you’re criticizing.”
I hold my tongue. The room fills with an angry silence.
Nephew comes in to check on us. We ask him if his house is in Fallujah. Yes, he says.
Where do you stay now, in Fallujah or Baghdad?
“Fallujah,” he says. “Madame, children, mother, father—all Fallujah. When it’s hot, you come to Fallujah for swimming. Very nice, swimming in the river.”
When does Sayeed come back? we ask. He’s been away for several days now. Bacher, Nephew says. “Sayeed good.”
Yes, Harmeet says, he gives us lots of food, lets us wash our clothes, brings us to watch television.
“Yes, yes, ianni, Sayeed good,” he says. “Hayder angry.” Nephew makes an angry face, waves his hand at his head, tenses his shoulders. “Hayder very angry. Sadika mot.” He drops his head against his shoulder, closes his eyes and sticks his tongue out.
Did his girlfriend die? Harmeet asks.
“Shwaya,” he says. She will die soon.
“Shoo mooreed?” Harmeet asks.
Nephew traces a path from his breast to his head. She has breast cancer and it’s metastasized to her brain. We ask how old she is. Seventeen, he says. We ask if she goes to school. No, he says, she is too sick. That is very sad, we say. Yes, he says, looking down. We tell him we will pray for her. Thank you, he says.
MARCH 13 DAY 108
Harmeet is taken downstairs by Nephew to help with preparing lunch. This gives me and Norman a chance to talk. “You know, this conflict between you and me,” he says, lifting my wrist with his handcuff, “it’s really the consequence of these, isn’t it? We’re two very different people with very different habits and ways of coping with this situation that we’re in. That’s why.”
His voice is gentle, but there’s an edge of finality in it, as if this settles everything.
“Yes, I agree,” I say. “This is very difficult for all of us. And yes, we are quite different. But I was quite hurt by the way that you talked to me. I felt really dismissed. Attacked, actually. It was so strong and happened so suddenly. It felt like it came right out of the blue, as if there was something more behind it. Is there something more that you need to say?”
“Well, it’s just that we’re very different people, aren’t we?”
“Yes, that’s true. Is that your answer to my question?”
“Basically, yes. William Blake is one of my heroes and I guess I didn’t like the way he was being attacked.”
“I wasn’t trying to attack William Blake. I didn’t even know it was his poem. I guess, if it had been Gerard Manley Hopkins we were talking about, I’d have jumpped to his defence. I was joking around, taking a potshot at poets who try to justify things that don’t quite work.”
“But you choose your words very carefully, much more carefully than I do. You really think before you use a word, and when you do, it means something.”
“And I chose ‘clunk’ very deliberately. I don’t know much about poetry—nothing at all about Blake—but when I heard it … There’s this lovely build of phrase—‘tiger tiger burning bright/in the forests of the night’—and I felt my ear was being prepared for a beautiful rhyme, and then it doesn’t carry through. I was disappointed. And there’s the word ‘symmetry’—there is no symmetry in the sound. The stanza fails to deliver what he sets up for the ear to hear. So just because it’s William Blake—”
“It doesn’t mean he can’t write a piece of bad verse,” Norman says.
“That’s right. It was when you said, ‘When you can write poetry as good as Blake, then you can criticize,’ that’s what really hurt. Now as a principle—that you have to be at least as good as the person you want to criticize—that’s not a sound principle. How, in the first place, would you make that judgment—what is good, and who is good enough? And really, with that kind of criterion, how could we have any discussion at all about art or literature or film? But I was trying to think, why was I so hurt? And I guess it’s probably my writer’s ego was attacked—every writer has one. But that’s an ongoing struggle.”
“Well, we are such different characters, hopefully we can respect each other in our differences,” Norman says.
“Yes, we’re going to have different opinions about things and we need to allow each other to have those opinions. It isn’t always easy to respect each other in that. I hope that you feel respected by me. Maybe there are ways you feel that I don’t respect you?”
“No, not really. It’s an example of our differences, but not something I—”
“That’s what hurt so much yesterday. I felt like you just didn’t respect me. I know it’s hard—we all fail at that—but please …” I hear Nephew and Harmeet coming up the stairs. Rage spews out of me like a gusher of lava. “… DON’T you ever tell me what I can say or can’t say. Especially here! When we’re chained up!” I slam my handcuffed wrist against the arm of my chair, eyes swimming with tears of rage.
“Okay,” Norman says.
Harmeet enters first, Nephew follows with our lunch. I open my samoon. Reheated white rice. More rage. I have to hold my samoon for a long time before I calm down enough to eat it.
What I noted, what’s interesting, what I wanted and hoped for most was just an apology. A simple acknowledgement of my feelings. That was not offered. I can manage, continue on normally in my relationship with Norman, get through what we need to in order to eventually, hopefully, get out.
Somehow, sometime in the early evening, my feelings shifted. The hurt let go and I had moved on. I no longer needed an apology; I was no longer carrying the injury I had sustained. I can live without receiving an apology, but I can’t help noting the fact I did not receive one. It tells me, I think, that Norman is not someone I can have a friendship with. Funny—I had entertained the idea of visiting Norman when we get out. I have almost no desire to now.
This brings me to reflect on the group nature of this experience. While on one hand, on the whole in fact, having brothers to go through this with has made survival and coping so much easier. It is hard to imagine how hard it would be to go through this alone. (Tom! It’s been over four weeks now!) On the other hand, in many ways this has been the most challenging aspect of this experience, and the occasion of some of the most intense emotional pain.
MARCH 15 DAY 110
Today we have a flower! Nephew gave it to me last night, just as Junior was leading us back to our room upstairs. “Here, for you,” he said. It was a rose.
I was so surprised, I all but forgot myself. “Why thank you. Nobody ever gives me flowers,” I said in my best Southern belle accent, eyelids fluttering. He frowned at me as if I belonged to a deviant species. It was like a slap in the face: Remember where you are, Jim.
I brought the flower close to my nose. Wowmygoodnesswhatheavenlypleasure! It was like breathing in a choir of angels. “From the garden?” I asked, rubbing the delicate rose skin between my fingers.
“Yes, garden,” Nephew said.
“Thank you,” I said.
So yes, we have a flower. Floating in a clear plastic cup. A lovely swirl of magenta pink, giving fragrance and beauty for free. Grace indeed, but oh so fleeting: its petal edges are already curling, wilting, turning brown. Everything changes, everything goes, I think. But for right now, today, we have a flower, and that is all that really matters.
MARCH 16 DAY 111
Curfew today. No car traffic. Scooters and donkey carts only, please. There’s a police presence at the intersection, as indicated by occasional loudspeaker instructions. Nothing for sure will happen today.
Our rose has survived another day. We asked Uncle how the garden was. He nodded. Zane zane, wardeh (gestures everywhere with hands, sniffs) zane. So we are in the season of roses, the season of flowers, spring! Praises be to God.
It also appears to be a season for killing. Was it yesterday, or the day before, that Nephew reported fifteen Sunnis had been killed in Baghdad? People attacked, gun-fired to death in their cars, shot by snipers. Killing—any kind, no matter for what—all killing disgusts me. I’m sick to death of it. Seeing it on the news, hearing about it, watching movies about it. The glorification and idolization of it. The money that’s spent on it. The blind orders and justifications for it. There must come a day when killing will finally be seen for what it is: a collective insanity, a moral scourge, a blasphemy against God and against the human.
While Norman is in the bathroom taking his bath, Uncle sniffs in his larger-than-life way. “Shstem, shstem,” he says, points to the open window in our room, then to the window he’s opened in the stairwell leading to the roof, and body-languages the flow of air between them. “Zane, zane shstem,” he says, gets up, motions us to follow, leads, pointing towards the open stairwell window, goes up the stairs, we follow, and I get within three feet of the open window, and ah! there’s blue sky! a date palm green frond flowing in the breezes! rooftops! the top of a flowering orange tree! “Shstem,” he says, and we all breathe deep the sweet spring air.
“Can I look out the window?” I ask. Uncle laughs. No, he says, and gently pulls me back downstairs.
Thus, the first glimpse of our beautiful blue world in 111 days.
After the bath, Norman is sitting in bare feet, his pants rolled up. His feet and ankles are quite swollen. I ask him if he’s noticed this. “Well yes, but my feet generally are a bit swollen. This one especially after I hurt it,” he says, lifting his left leg and pointing to a large area of wine-coloured skin on his calf. “I’m not worried about it.”
“Okay,” I say, “but they do look pretty swollen. Can that be linked to your blood pressure?”
He chuckles. “If your blood pressure gets too high, it leads to heart failure, which then causes your feet to swell.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything.”
Norman straightens his legs, turns and examines his feet, comparing them. “They are swollen, aren’t they? I had sort of noticed, but I just didn’t want to think about it.”
Yesterday’s movie, Resident Evil: Regeneration, filmed on location in Toronto. A surreal treat indeed to be feted with hometown images: City Hall, Nathan Phillips Square, Bloor Street Viaduct, Metro Hall, the Toronto skyline. The world I come from does exist, and it is there to return to.
MARCH 17 DAY 112
Uncle announces that Medicine Man will be coming to do a video. “Haji make Hindi movie,” Harmeet says, imitating a Bollywood dancer. Uncle laughs.
We prepare our Medicine Man list. At the top of the list, as always: news. Then an update on Tom. Then requests. Reading glasses and combs, a bible and a Quran, a lighter blanket. The contentious issue is whether or not to tell Medicine Man about Norman’s swollen feet. Norman doesn’t want to—he doesn’t think it’s a big deal. We think otherwise. It’ll put pressure on Medicine Man to come to a resolution. Emphasize your chest pain, tell him that you have a heart condition, you have to see a doctor, we’re worried.
Medicine Man arrives at nightfall, followed by Junior and Uncle. “Harmeet,” he says, smiling. “I have come to make some Hindi film. Are you ready?” Medicine Man and Uncle exchange laughter. How interesting, I think. Everything we say is being reported to Medicine Man.
“We have to take another video,” he tells us. “Just the name and time. This is to show you alive. They have some worry, especially about this one … if we kill him.” He points to Norman and snaps his finger. He’s forgotten Norman’s name! “Just this video, we have the money, and you release. All of you. The other video, I not send it.”
“The one of just the Canadians?” I ask.
“Yes, I still have it, I not send. This the last one, inshallah. News good. I send the video and then not long. Just some little thing … taking the money … when and where to release you. Now I make the video.” He wants me and Harmeet to say our names and the date, Norman to refer to three questions that his wife has sent.
Medicine Man sits on the blue folding chair and replays the video. The three captors talk amongst themselves at great length, their faces solemn. Then Medicine Man stands up. He’s about to leave.
“There were a couple of things you said you would get for us—combs, reading glasses, books,” Norman says.
Medicine Man takes a breath. “I forget these things. I have been working every day on your case, making some negotiation. Believe me, I not have time for anything. I must to do the important thing. Books, glasses—these are some small thing. Not important. I forget them.” He shrugs. “I am bad for that.”
“There is one other thing. My ankles.” Norman points to his feet. “My ankles are swollen.” Medicine Man bends down to look closer. “This is a condition that could be related to high blood pressure,” Norman says, pointing to his heart. “This is what I am taking medicine for.”
“The heart?” Medicine Man says, peering closely at Norman.
“Yes,” he says.
“You need this? Something to check the blood pressure around the arm?”
“Yes,” Norman says.
“I bring it.”
“Plus a stethoscope,” I say. Medicine Man nods, edges towards the door. “Before you go, is there anything more specific you can say about the news?” He leans towards me as I ask the question.
“News good. For all of you. For you,” he says, pointing to Harmeet and me, “it has been good from the beginning. Your government is always ready for the negotiation. But now it is good for the Doctor.”
“So there is progress with the British?” I ask.
The power cuts out. Medicine Man takes out his cellphone and shines it towards me so he can see my face. “Yes. We will send the video to Canada and Britain. The British have agreed to negotiate. The only thing more is to make the transfer of the money and some details for you release. Everything looks good. I will see you tomorrow.”
MARCH 18 DAY 113
Uncle arrives with “supper”—a common plate of stone-cold fried potatoes and three very stale samoons. One of the samoons falls on the floor with a thunk. Uncle picks it off the floor, dusts it off and plops the stack of them on the zowagi cube so he can unlock us.
The thoughtlessness and disrespect of this sends my anger engines roaring—anger so caustic it threatens to eat me alive. It’s the ugliest feeling. I hate how it pulses in my veins, a burning, cauterizing, consuming fury. Action! Action now! it screams, lashes, goads. It is the only thing capable of breaking the suffocating hold of our plastic-chair passivity. This, I start to think, is its real purpose. I formulate a test. When I am angry, it is because of a perception that something is not right. I need something to be different. I apply it to every situation I can think of, from the whole of my life. In every instance it seems to be true. I am unable to find a single exception.
Maybe this is what anger is, I think, a sacred energy, a vital inner force that irresistibly drives us to act for the change we need. It builds and builds until it is discharged, either in a carefully executed plan, or a blind flailing tantrum. If it cannot be discharged then something worse happens. It dies, and then there is only the open grave of despair. There seems to be no getting around it. You have to do something with anger. Sometimes all that’s required is the slightest change in perception. This is what happens today. A thought comes to me, free and untethered, like a floating balloon. You can sit there and rage all you want, it says, but you’re the one who will suffer, not the captors. Your moods are of no consequence to them. But they do affect you, and the two men sitting with you. This is enough. My jets begin to cool and I return again to some semblance of calm.
MARCH 19 DAY 114
Midday. Medicine Man pops in with his video camera. He films me and Harmeet holding a copy of today’s newspaper. “I have some negotiation today with the Canadian embassy,” he says. “I must to finish today.” He’s harried, breathless, sweating. “The British too, but the Canadian one especially, they must to have it done.” And then he’s gone.
“The British got left behind again,” Norman says, his voice sad. I feel a pang of guilt. Neither of us acknowledged the glaring exclusion of Norman from the video.
Uncle returns with a big bowl of rice and a lovely spinach and bean soup. He says a neighbour brought it to the door. Later that afternoon Uncle brings us something else. Three one-inch-square, one-inch-thick rose-coloured confections. “Helcoom, helcoom,” he says. “This from Mosul.” I take it into my fingers. It’s dense, spongy, translucent. Uncle watches carefully as we take our first bites. Ecstasy! It is quite simply the most oh-my-God-delicious thing I’ve ever had. We thank him lavishly. He says he will give us some to take home with us.
Norman pulls up his left pant leg. He shows us, on his calf, a long purplish vein, half an inch wide and six inches long, and a large area of swelling. “Feel here,” he says. There’s a series of hard lumps under the skin. He’s experiencing the same pain he felt during the end-of-December cellulitis episode. His toes are itchy. I give him the antibiotic I didn’t use when I was sick.
The captivity is taking its toll. I’m worried about him. He seems to be aging right before my eyes. He’s getting more uncertain on his feet and he looks waxy, almost embalmed. Swollen feet, chest pain, what appears to be a second bout of cellulitis. It’s as if his body is saying, “I can’t take this anymore.”
I wonder what happened to the robust young man who set off with his brother for a motorcycle tour of northern Scotland, stopping here and there to scramble up rocky mountainsides; the cross-country runner and track athlete; the bone growth specialist who researched and lectured and administered the St. Bartholomew’s Hospital (Barts) Department of Physics; the tireless activist who marched in the street, wrote incisive pamphlets, dressed up as a peace tree at summer festivals and attended dozens of meetings? It’s such a mystery, the aging process, how it occurs, the imperceptible accumulation of wrinkle and sag, the greying of hair and coarsening of skin, the stiffening of joint and slowing down of limb.
Cheap grace. It’s haunted Norman all his life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s rebuke of an easy, complacent Christianity that avoids hardships and struggle. He never suffered any consequence for his commitment to pacifism. In fact, it rather worked to his advantage. After completing a degree in physics at the University of Exeter, he registered as a conscientious objector when, at the age of twenty-one, he was called up for the National Service. His application was accepted without question and the tribunal directed him to perform alternative medical work for two years. He started off polishing nurses’ shoes and cleaning urine bottles, but then saw a rare posting for a trainee physicist and decided to apply. As chance would have it, one of the doctors who interviewed him was a leading member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an international peace organization that formed after the war. His sympathy for Norman’s pacifism helped him earn the job and launched his career as a medical physicist. When he finished his service in 1955, he returned to London where he met the world-renowned physicist and Nobel laureate Professor Joseph Rotblat in the peace circles they frequented. Rotblat hired Norman on at Barts and two years later he went on to do his Ph.D. He married Pat Cartwright in 1960 and spent one year as a post-doctoral fellow at Brookhaven National Laboratory (located on Long Island in New York State) before settling into a comfortable middle-class existence as the father of two girls, Sally and Joanna, and a lecturer in nuclear medicine. He succeeded his mentor as head of department when Rotblat retired from Barts in 1976, a role Norman held until his own retirement in 1990.
Caught between the demands of his family life and career on the one hand, and his Christian idealism on the other, Norman fell away from peace activism for many years. The ease and relative affluence of his life seemed incompatible with a life of real discipleship. He went to church, taught at Sunday school and helped out with a children’s club—activities that always complemented and never challenged the life he was living. He felt it was hypocritical to involve himself in the peace movement when he wasn’t prepared to substantially change his lifestyle. He only returned to it in the 1980s, rejoining the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Baptist Peace Fellowship after accepting that no one can fully live up to what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Concerned always that he’d been a “cheap peacemaker,” he decided in his old age it was time to take a risk for what he believed, just as the young servicemen and -women in Iraq were taking a risk for what they believed.
Well, Norman, here we are. Any thoughts about cheap grace? I could use a little myself right now—how about you?
MARCH 20 DAY 115 10:00 a.m.
As per yesterday, Uncle comes up in a bleary state, eyes dark-circled, explaining he’d been up till 6:00 a.m.—American soldiers and helicopters. I heard him in the wee hours of the morning, in one of the front bedrooms, metal occasionally banging, the sound of his body shifting. There were helicopters on patrol, hovering near the house, low enough to set off car alarms. I told Uncle I heard him. He said “Jaysh Amriki,” body-languaged “keeping watch with a rocket launcher,” made a schoof rocket-launcher launching sound.
Fuck, that’s a little freaky. They’re going to fight to their death. This is the biggest threat to our survival. A raid will be a death certificate.
We need to get out of here. Pronto, now, today. Tom has most certainly been killed. Medicine Man is becoming desperate. Uncle is on a fight-to-the-death watch. Norman was excluded from the last video. His health is deteriorating. The order for his separation could come at any hour. We’re in mortal danger every second that we’re here.
Harmeet and Norman think we can just ride this out. They’re wrong. My mind has become very clear—we’re not going to get out of here unless we take matters into our own hands. My body, however, is not yet ready, and the mere thought of what we have to do sends me into spasms of involuntary shaking.
I am the delegation leader. This is what I have to do. Grapple with the fear, prepare the way, bring the decision to birth within myself first. My mind turns feverishly to making a plan. My body responds with constant invisible trembling.
MARCH 21 DAY 116
“Saba il hare,” we say to Uncle when he comes into the room. “Saba il noor,” he answers. He has a rose in his hand. He closes his eyes, inhales deeply, makes loud smacking sounds as if he’s about to eat it, smiles, puts it in the plastic cup on the hostess trolley. “Garden, garden,” he says. He unlocks us and opens the blue folding chair. He sits and shifts his weight in one motion. The legs of the chair buckle and bend sideways. Uncle recovers his balance, the chair falls, he picks it up, for a moment tries to fix it, shrugs, tosses it aside. “Finish,” he says. He locks us up after morning exercise and then leaves.
We will not see him again.
Vernal equinox: equal day and equal night. The guard has changed. Uncle’s gone home and Nephew has taken the captor console.
Staff squabbles. Nephew is in a sour mood because Uncle left the larder bare—no sausage, no meat, no eggs, no tomato, no potato, and apparently no money in the mujahedeen kitty to get more. And to boot, as he was opening up the little blue fold-up chair to sit on during morning exercise, I informed him that it was “finished.”
“Finished?” he said.
“Yes—Sayeed,” and I pointed to the bent leg.
“Mooshkilla Sayeed,” he said, opened the chair, took it out into the foyer, found it wasn’t functional, frowned darkly, sat on the stairs.
“My birthday is on Friday,” Harmeet tells Nephew. It’s part of the ongoing strategy: elicit sympathy, confront with our humanity. Who knows what will be the key that opens the door.
Nephew looks surprised. “Three days Friday?”
“Yes,” Harmeet says.
“Good Harmeet,” he says. How old will you be? he asks him. Thirty-three. When is your birthday? he asks me. October. Norman? August. “I bring happy-birthday-to-you cake,” he says to Harmeet.
Norman does not say anything, but I see him, in the corner of my eye, nodding from time to time. Harmeet and I agree: the worst has probably happened; we’re dealing with it in much the same way. It’s there, in a mental file folder, a box, a hermetically sealed container. A fact or a possibility, that is all. There’s no emotion around or for it. There can’t be.
The implication of this fact or possibility is ominous. If Tom has been killed, somebody had to do it. Who then? Medicine Man? Video Man? Number One? One of the initial five who kidnapped us? Somebody else altogether?
The thought makes me shudder. Whoever it was must be waiting in the shadows, ready to kill the rest of us.
We have to get out of here.
As always, we are very quiet when setting up the futon for our afternoon nap. We want to keep our captors from finding out about this sweet afternoon indulgence for fear they will take it away from us. It is this more than anything else that succours my mood. Every step and movement must be coordinated: getting the futon and pillows, opening up the futon, laying down the pillows, unfolding the sheet, lying down on the futon, getting under the sheet. We move like a gangly three-headed creature with six legs and three arms.
Nephew pops his head into the room just as we are lying down. My body tenses, prepares for an angry reaction. “Good good, nice nice,” he says, taking the sheet. He flicks it in the air, lets it fall gently upon us, makes sure that it covers our feet and our shoulders. The afternoon light is warm and gold-glowing. I close my eyes. The next hour is utter bliss.
Nephew and Junior are looking for their AK-47. They enter and leave the room, search and re-search their bedclothes, the floor behind the curtains, a cabinet cupboard.
“Should I tell them where it is?” Harmeet whispers to me.
“You know where it is?”
“Yeah, it’s in that cupboard over there,” he says, pointing to the cabinet. “I saw Uncle put it there when I was down washing the floor earlier. I guess he never told them where he put it before he left.”
“Let them find it,” I say.
“What kind of operation are they running here? They can’t even keep track of their guns.”
“I wish CPT training had included instructions on using an AK-47,” I say, half-joking, half-serious.
Nephew lies on his mat and covers himself with his blanket. Junior continues to search, casually, wandering here and there as if he is bored. He makes a phone call. The person on the other end of the line directs him to the cabinet. Junior opens the cabinet door. His eyes light up when he sees the gun. “Najis!” he says into the phone.
He closes the cabinet door. He doesn’t see there’s a drinking glass on the floor near Nephew’s bed. He knocks it over. The glass shatters on the tile floor. Junior jumps back and curses. It’s instinctual, my impulse to get up and help, the courteous thing to do when somebody breaks or spills something. But a foot slams down in my mind. No, let him clean up his own mess. He’s the captor and you’re the captive. I stay in my chair. Harmeet springs up immediately and is on his knees picking up the glass.
My first response is judgment—Stop, you’re crossing the line, Harmeet—but then I see Junior’s reaction. “Thank you,” he says, surprised and confused. This is not in the rule book, I think, a hostage offering spontaneous assistance to his kidnapper. Harmeet’s action confronts Junior with his humanity and shifts the balance of their relationship. In this moment, he’s no longer a helpless and subservient captive but a sovereign individual offering practical assistance to another. It’s an example of moral jiu-jitsu.
I experienced this myself when I was sick. Junior asked me for a massage and I said no. Instead of complaining and pleading as I had expected, he said he was sorry and told me to lie down on the floor and sleep. He left the room and returned with a wet cloth to put on my forehead. In that instant my whole orientation towards him changed. I was filled with wonder and gratitude at being cared for when I had expected animosity and provocation. He had turned the tables on me.
A similar thing happened with Uncle. When the captors brought us downstairs one evening, I brought the yellow scrubby from the bathroom with me to clean the hallway sink where we wash our hands before supper and brush our teeth. It always appalled me, the dark veneer of grime that had been accumulating for God knows how long. Without asking for permission, I got the scrubby out and went to work. As soon as Uncle saw me, he wanted to know what I was doing. He stood behind me and watched, unsure at first what to do. He began to point to areas that needed cleaning and then took the scrubby so he could do it himself. “Good,” he said when we were done, pleased with the gleaming porcelain result. In that moment we were equals, two men admiring the sink we had just cleaned.
This is what that passage from the Bible is all about, I think: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” If he breaks a glass on the floor, help him pick it up. If he’s feverish, get a wet cloth to cool his forehead. If his sink is dirty, clean it. Turn the tables; confront with surprise; provoke wonder, chagrin, even shame. Heap burning coals of love on his head. Do this and you will both be transformed.
Breakfast: a cake that Nephew brought from home, made by his wife, and a samoon. Lunch: a big bowl of rice garnished with fried potato bits. Late afternoon snack (first ever!): macaroni with mild chili spice. Supper: rice, macaroni, samoon. A stupendous amount of food. I am, for the first time ever, full. And still I could eat, and eat, and eat.
It puzzles me. Why now? Is it a sign they plan to release us? Is this something that Nephew has decided on his own? Do they feel so comfortable with us that they no longer believe we will hurt them or risk trying to escape? Whatever the reason, I don’t mind. It feels good not to be so hungry.
An hour and fifteen minutes to kill. I used to hate that expression, as if time, God’s glorious gift, the lifeblood of life, were a bad weed or a cockroach. But I’m afraid I’ve come to adopt it here, where time has become the enemy, a dragon that must be slain.
“Come on, Jim, come on, Harmeet,” Junior says. What a relief. Time for bed. We follow him upstairs. Junior sits down in one of our plastic chairs while we do our nightly rotation through the bathroom. Taking the cup with the roses into his hand, he wants to know where they came from. From the big man—he took them from the garden, we explain.
Junior nods, smiles, smells it. His face becomes pained. “No, this-I-love-you,” he says, gripping his ring finger. He forms an X with his index fingers and places it over his heart. He pretends to pull a ring off his finger. “Mozane, mozane,” he says, covering his face with his hands. He makes a big circle with his arms as if to show the circumference of the earth. Life, the world, everything is bad, everything is hopeless, he seems to be saying.
Norman returns and eases himself into his place next to the wall. When I return from the bathroom, Harmeet gets up to take his turn and Junior bends down to chain my foot. “I’m sorry, Jim,” he says. He points to himself and shakes his head. “This no mother, no father, no beit. No zowage, no madame, no whalid. Sister mooreed. No sierra, no business, no hubis.” He body-languages a rifle, looking through a scope, pulling the trigger. “Kul yoom Amriki,” he says. This is what he does every day when he leaves in the car. He’s a sniper. He kills American soldiers.
Harmeet returns and takes his place in the middle. Junior handcuffs us together and stands up. “Good night,” he says.
“Good night,” we say. Junior closes the door and leaves.
“Did I miss anything exciting?” Harmeet asks.
“Just Junior’s tales of woe,” Norman says.
MARCH 22 DAY 117
Norman is anxious. It’s beginning to seem as if Harmeet and I may be going first, that the negotiations are now on separate tracks. Norman, preparing for this possibility, asks us what we think is likely to happen. He wants to think through what it will mean for him if he’s left behind. Would he be moved? If so, where? What would he need to bring?
In the event that we are released first, there are four things he wants us to tell his wife, Pat:
1. he loves her;
2. he thanks her for forty-some years of life together;
3. he asks for her forgiveness for putting her through this, the consequence of his decision to go to Iraq;
4. while this may be a life that is not of her choosing, he gently urges her to live each day fully, to get on and go on with things as best she can—not to put her life on hold.
The idea gnashes and tears at me. I could, when it’s my turn to be in the middle, unlock myself with the Instrument of Grace, sneak downstairs, see if I can get out the door. If I can, I’ll run. If I can’t, I’ll return to my place and lock myself up again. At least then I will know and not waste any more energy wondering of my escape.
The consequences could be catastrophic. The captors will learn about the Instrument of Grace. Norman and Harmeet will be punished, immediately moved (if not killed), perhaps separated. Their conditions will most certainly be more restrictive, maybe even unbearable. All of that will be on my conscience.
But—we’re in terrible danger! I want to live! We have to do something!
They don’t feel this sense of urgency. They’re biding their time, waiting it out, trusting in the course of these negotiations. I could risk it. Maybe one evening. When I’m going to the bathroom. Slip into the kitchen. Go to the door, see if it will open. I’d have five, maybe seven seconds to get to the end of the driveway and climb over whatever gate or wall is there before they figure out what’s happening. I’d have to be fast. They will try to shoot me. My heart pounds wildly. It means risking everything. It means leaving Harmeet and Norman behind, exposing them to terrible danger.
The best way is for us to do it together. That way we all share the risk and all share the benefit. But they don’t like talking about it. I wish I could convince them. I’m sure, if we just put our heads together, we could figure something out. Something with minimal risk and a high chance of succeeding. Something we could do today, for example, while Nephew is alone with us.
I begin with a summary of our situation: Uncle up all night with his rocket launcher, Medicine Man’s lies, the apparent failure of the British negotiations, worries about Norman’s health, the precarious political situation in the country. Our time is running out, I say. Unless we take matters into our own hands, we’re not going to make it. They’re going to kill us. It means risking everything, but I’m starting to think we don’t have any option. It’s like a puzzle—we can solve it. Once we come up with a plan, we can practise and prepare ourselves.
Then I make my proposal. “I keep thinking about Harmeet’s story of when he was a kid, how they would twist each other’s shirts so tight that they’d make each other pass out. I’d like to try that, role-play it. We can use the blue blindfolds. Harmeet, if we unlocked you tonight, you could test it out on me, stand behind me with the blindfold, see how long it takes for me to pass out, how long it lasts. I’ll pretend to be Junior or Nephew and see if I can reach around behind to stop you. We can try it a few different times in different ways.”
“No, I don’t think so,” Harmeet says, his voice barely a whisper.
“This is not committing us to any plan,” I say. “It’s just to test something out, to see if it might be an option. Then we can role-play it and perfect it.”
No, Harmeet says. I try again to convince him, but Norman interrupts. “He doesn’t want to do it,” he says, “and neither do I. It’s not worth the risk.”
“And unlocking every night the way we used to—that was worth the risk?” I say.
There’s no budging them. Bury your heads in the sand, I want to scream.
The impasse hovers about us like a pall. I feel like I am baking in a hot oven of silence. I fight with myself to accept the fact that it is their freedom to say no. I can’t.
We need a change of mood. Anyone for a game of Wheel of Fortune or Word Within a Word? I want to ask. I steal sideways glances at Harmeet and Norman. They are closed up, shuttered, somewhere far away. I know it will help us, but I can’t bring myself to ask it. What if they say no to punish me? They know I like those games. They were both my idea. I couldn’t bear it if they said no. Better to stew in this toxic silence.
Nephew comes up to unlock us. “Hayder coming soon,” he says, holding up his mobile. We set up our bed and follow him downstairs. We take our places in front of the television. I open my notebook and begin to write.
“Sometime after 7:00 p.m. Downstairs in haji headquarters, sitting in chairs with good light and no handcuffs, as captive as ever. My mind is largely a blank, perhaps because of thinking about Sheila.” (Sheila is the codeword I used for “escape.”)
I look up from my notebook. There’s a car pulling up the driveway. It has to be Junior, returning from doing God knows what, another long day working in the vineyard of death. I almost laugh. I have this image of Junior entering the kitchen, tired, setting down a bag of groceries, calling out to Nephew, “Hi, honey, I’m home.” And Nephew, preoccupied with some task, an apron around his waist, answering absently, “How was your day, dear?”
Junior enters the room with a bag of fresh samoons. I say hello and continue with writing. These are the last words of my notebook:
During his check-in, Norman noted that we had a quiet afternoon, perhaps because we were each withdrawn, he as guilty as anyone else. I wanted, at different points, to suggest we play a game, but noting Harmeet and Norman’s distance, thought better of it. I looked for, but found no signal of interest, and not wanting to experience the rejection of a no, didn’t ask.
There are so many ways I’m a prisoner—so many ways my fears, preconceptions and judgments limit, constrain, handicap, govern me—so many ways I’m enslaved by what-other-people-might-think-say-do. This is the attachment of my identity, my dependence upon favourable opinion, impression, perception of others for the well-being of my ego. This is a prison as surely as this place is. I could’ve just asked, wanna play Wheel of Fortune, let them say yes or no; receive the gift of a yes and accept the honesty of a no. I have so much to learn and so many ways to grow in terms of communication.
Dear God, help me to grow in freedom. The addendum to this prayer I make with some fear and trembling, but I charge ahead nonetheless. Grant me, prepare me, grace me to let go of what I must to receive this freedom. Your freedom, the freedom of being fully the person you created me to be. And the corollary (or the fruit?): allowing others to be who they are, embracing them as they are. This is the mutual dialogue, the beautiful give-and-take of freedom.
I think sometimes I get trapped by a dynamic where I think another person needs to do or be some particular thing in order for me to be who or what I’m supposed to be. This is the difficulty of interdependence, where one’s decisions, needs, desires inter-affect the decisions, needs, desires of another, sometimes collide or conflict, and freedom thereby becomes something to negotiate, contend with. This, of course, is the human journey, the dance against limits, until the final embrace of death. It is our nature to strain against and defy that which limits, to break the bond of gravity and fly free transcendent, whether it be through war, art, sport, power, wealth, empire, glory of every shade and shape and texture.
“Come on, Jim, massage,” Junior says to me. He’s lying on his bed.
I sigh, close up my notebook, kneel beside him. I work on his back for a long time. This, at least, is one useful thing I can do. I pray for his sister, and for the healing of his spirit. Only then will he be able to lay down his gun.
When I am done, I sit back in my chair and stare vacantly at the television, simmering with escape plans.
We are sitting cross-legged on the futon waiting for Norman, who is taking his turn in the bathroom. Junior sits facing us on a chair, singing his Shwaya shwaya song with his eyes closed, head swaying in imitation of Kazem Al Saher, the pop star he idolizes. He opens his eyes and lifts his right forearm towards me. “Come on, Jim, massage, massage,” he pleads, pressing his arm to show me how sore it is. I gird myself to say no. Two massages in one day is crossing the line. He gets up from his chair and sits in front of me cross-legged, so close that our knees touch. He holds his forearm out. I laugh. “All right,” I say. “Shwaya.”
Junior recites the same litany of rue we heard last night—no mother, no father, no house. His voice is pained, aching with despair.
He pulls his arm away, forms his right hand into a gun and points it at his temple. He pulls the trigger, tilts his head, sticks his tongue out, closes his eyes. “This in Canada,” he asks, “Zane? Mozane?”
He’s asking me if it’s okay to kill yourself in Canada. “La, la,” I say, shocked by his question. “La suicide. Mozane. This haram in Canada.”
He nods. “This good in Canada. This no Islami.” He points to himself. “This no suicide. La Islami.”
“Good,” I say to him. “Inshallah, this abu zane.”
When Norman returns, I take my turn in the bathroom. When I come back, I’m surprised to find Harmeet and Junior sitting cross-legged together on the mat, Harmeet massaging Junior’s forearm just as I had been. “Any good news?” I hear Harmeet ask Junior. He’s pressing him for information about our release.
Instead of the usual inshallah, or shwaya shwaya, his answer is a strange smile. A smile that says yes, it will be soon, very very soon. Harmeet reaches into his pocket and presents him with a peace crane, made from one of the gold candy wrappers. “This is for your sister,” Harmeet says.
“Thank you,” he says, his face very solemn. He puts the crane into his pocket and locks us up. “Good night,” he says, closing the door behind him.
“Good night,” we say.
I lie awake for a long time after that, flailing in an agony of indecision. I want to escape and they don’t. Our lives are hanging in the balance. I don’t know what to do.