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

Chapter 17

I discovered it somewhere in that vast ocean of time: a day without hope, a day so empty and dull and morbid with waiting it is impossible to distinguish. A curtain pulled back, the walls around us dissolved, and I could see with perfect blue-sky clarity the Whole Truth of the Universe. I remember laughing with astonishment. Everything I needed to know about the world and how it worked was right in front of me, literally at my fingertips, hanging on the back of a chair.

On that day, it happened that one of us had occasion to use the hamam bottle. This was the 1.5-litre Pepsi bottle the captors brought with the Christmas cake and let us keep after it was empty. We only ever used it as a last resort. As you can imagine, peeing into the narrow opening of a plastic pop bottle when your left and right hands are handcuffed to somebody else is not the easiest thing to do.

On that day, things didn’t go so well and the services of our hamam rag became needed. This was Tom’s undershirt, part of the change of clothes given to us on Christmas Day and made available by Tom when the captors either didn’t understand or didn’t agree with our need for a rag. We wiped up the spill and draped the rag over the back of a chair until it could be rinsed out later.

Sometime afterwards, Uncle brought us lunch, a samoon filled with eggplant fried in oil. I remember it seemed to happen in slow motion. Uncle glanced at his fingers, saw they were greasy, spotted the rag and started to reach for it. No! Stop! Wait! I wanted to warn him, but before I could get the words out, Uncle had wiped his fingers on our hamam rag. He looked about the room, checked to see that everything was in order, said goodbye and went downstairs.

I was too shocked to say anything. Uncle just wiped his hands in our piss! He wanted to clean them, but he ended up doing the opposite thing, soiling himself in our captivity. Our degradation had become his degradation. Uncle couldn’t see it, but we could. The oppressed can see what the oppressor cannot. Whatever you do to another, you do also to yourself. Every act of harm, every act of violence, regardless of the reason, soils and corrupts your humanity. And then you pass it on, spreading it like a contagion in everything you touch, in the course of opening a door, shaking someone’s hand, making a cup of tea. It happens of its own accord, because it has to, a universal principle of cause and effect. Everything we do, no matter how insignificant, affects everything and everyone else, whether we realize it or not. It cannot be helped or stopped.

It was Lord Acton who famously said that power corrupts. The word “power” comes from the Old French poer, “to be able.” Every human being needs to be able. To move, think, do, act, decide. Secure the necessaries of life. Establish boundaries, protection, safety. Secure a future for his or her children.

We are born without power. We are born naked, helpless, unable even to lift our heads. From here we embark on a lifelong journey of becoming and growing into autonomous, self-realizing body-selves with wondrous capacities for movement, perception and relation. We move from powerlessness into power in a continuous process of testing, expanding and negotiating the limits of what we are capable of. Anyone who has spent time with a 2-year-old will know this very well. We reach a zenith, and the arc of our lives turns again towards the powerlessness into which we were born, and we become once more dependent, needy, physically indigent. At every point along the way we need power, whether it is for ourselves or someone we are responsible for.

The exercise of power is central to us as human beings. We cannot avoid it. We have to have it. The question is not whether we need power, but what kind. Do we choose the power of power over, or the power of power with? Do we choose the power of threat, ultimatum and consequence, gun and bomb, or the power of love, solidarity and compassion, patience and reconciliation? Is it the power of domination and subjugation, or the power of nurturing and collaboration? Is it the power to destroy or the power to heal, to take life or give life? The power of violence or non-violence?

Our captors needed power. They needed the murderous occupation of their country to stop. They needed accountability, justice, compensation. They needed power, and they reached for the power of violence—the power that corrupts, as Lord Acton so astutely observed. They used this power to take away our freedom, and then they lost their own in turn.

I thought about it almost every day, the great biblical story of Exodus. The Hebrew people had fallen into the slavery of Pharaoh, building store cities to hold the surplus production of his realm. The Hebrews cried out to God in their toil and God heard them. He called forth a leader, a man named Moses, and sent him to Pharaoh with a simple message: “Let my people go.”

How I know this cry. Let me go let me go let me go! A cry capable of blasting down walls and breaking chains. It burned within me like a fire. Every oppressed and enslaved person knows it. It pulses in every heartbeat and whispers in every breath, a living mantra of indignation, anger, hope. It arises militantly, continuously, irresistibly. It will never stop, not for a millisecond, until the day of freedom finally comes.

Ten times God sent Moses to Pharaoh. “Let my people go,” he said. And ten times Pharaoh said no. Each time he refused, God sent a plague. First the Nile turned to blood. Then all the livestock died. Then locusts came and ate everything in sight. Each plague seemed more terrible than the next, culminating horribly in the death of every first-born son in Egypt. No one was to be spared. “There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt—worse than there has ever been or ever will be again,” Moses told Pharaoh. When the plague came as promised, Pharaoh finally relented and allowed the Hebrews to leave. They made their escape by crossing through the Red Sea. Pharaoh followed after them until his chariots were swallowed by the sea.

I always used to be troubled by the plague on the first-born. What kind of a God was this? How could an apparently loving and forgiving God reap such a grim harvest of innocents, the wholesale massacre of blameless children in exchange for the freedom of an enslaved people? It seemed like an impossible and abhorrent contradiction. Until Uncle wiped his hands on our hamam rag. And then I suddenly understood: the story is about Pharaoh, not God. The plagues are not the vindictive punishment of a malicious deity. They are a consequence, what happens to you when you refuse to let go, a manifestation of the Hamam Effect. You’re going to be soiled. You’re going to end up with the opposite of what you want. You’re going to lose your first-born son, your most precious possession, the thing in which you have invested the totality of your name, your wealth, your existential legacy. You are held by the thing that you hold.

“Is there any news?” we used to ask them. It was our way of saying, “When are you going to let us go?” They each did it, at different times, independently of each other, pointed to their wrists as if they themselves were in handcuffs. “Inshallah,” they said, Nephew, Junior and Uncle, “when you are free, we will be free.” They had the guns and the keys, but they were not free. They lost their freedom—the very thing they were fighting for—as soon as they took away ours. You are held by the thing that you hold.

In the Hebrew scripture, Egypt is the symbol of bondage. It is the place of oppression and debasement that God acts in history to deliver us from. And the symbol of Egypt is the pyramid, a house of domination. Everyone who is in a pyramid is ranked and organized according to a geometry of subservience. The one above rules and the one below obeys. Wealth and ease flow up, while misery and servile labour flow down. This arrangement, called a hierarchy, is rarely questioned, least of all by those who appear to benefit most.

In fact, there is no benefit to living in a pyramid, the house of captivity. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a pharaoh or a slave, a CEO or an indentured piecework seamstress, an insurgent with a gun or an innocent hostage victim. There is no freedom for anyone in the pyramid because, when you get right down to it, a pyramid is really a tomb, a house for a corpse, a place of despoliation and death for all who inhabit it. If you want to be free, you have to get out of the pyramid altogether.

This is the Whole Truth of the Universe, summarized by Martin Luther King Jr.:

We are tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made. This is the way it is structured.

This is what captivity taught me. Everything we do affects everything and everyone else. If we want to be free, if we want to live as sisters and brothers in a beautiful blue world, a world without war, we have to let go of the power of domination and reach for the power of loving and healing and forgiving. We have to lay down the gun, the bomb, the institution of war, our faith in the power of violence. Until then we will live in a charnel house of death, a tomb, a pharoah’s pyramid, the house of captivity. This is the way God’s universe is made, the way human freedom is structured. You are held by the thing that you hold.