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

Chapter 5

NOVEMBER 29 DAY 4

Young Moustache Man enters the living room in his undershirt. He’s cleaning his ears with the same green towel I’ve seen Number One using. “Good morn-ning,” he calls buoyantly. It’s time to get up. For a moment I’m not sure that I can. I’ve lost confidence in my body, no longer know what it can and can’t do. My brain sends the signal and, much to my surprise, everything still works. I roll onto my right knee, use my left elbow as a fulcrum against my left knee and ease myself into standing. I immediately reach above my head with my handcuffed hands. A delicious release of tension floods my body.

I look over at Norman. He’s struggling to get a foot planted on the floor so he can push himself up. “Would you like a hand, Norman?” I ask.

“No, I think I’ve got it, thank you,” he says. With a Herculean grunt he hauls himself to his feet.

Great Big Man is just sitting up. His eyes are puffy with lack of sleep. He’s wearing the same clothes he’s worn since Day One—a long-sleeved navy blue denim jacket with three pockets (one at the left breast and two at the waist; keys in the right waist pocket) and matching denim track pants with an elastic waist. The word “GAMMA” is written along the left leg of his pants and his right sleeve. There’s no way he could have slept—the couch is two feet shorter than he is. He stands up, arches his back, exits the room.

We fold up our bedding. Young Moustache Man nods approvingly. When our hamam rotation is over, we are instructed to go back into the other room and sit down.

“What do you mean?” Harmeet says. “It’s only been two and a half days.”

“No,” I say, “it’s been four.”

“How do you figure? We were captured on Saturday and now it’s Tuesday morning. That’s two and a half days, not four.”

“Saturday was day one,” I say, “Sunday day two, Monday day three and today is day four.” Harmeet insists that’s not correct. “I don’t care,” I say, almost boiling over. “If it’s even one second past midnight, it counts as a day.”

“I don’t see that it matters,” Tom says. “We’re going to get out when we get out. The important thing is to stay in the present moment. We don’t know how long we’re going to be stuck here.”

I grit my teeth. The last thing I want to hear is a lecture on “the present moment.”

“Okay?” Young Moustache Man says, entering the room. “Come on. Akeel.” We follow him into the living room. “Sit down,” he says. He turns on the television with the remote and selects an Arabic pop music channel. His eyes light up when he hears the song that’s being played. He closes his eyes and sings, hips swaying with the music. Then he goes into the kitchen.

“This is different,” Tom says.

“What do you think? Bacon and eggs?” I say.

“I would settle for some crumpets and tea,” Norman says.

Great Big Man appears with an oval tray and sets it on the floor in front of us. It holds four glass tumblers, each with an inch of sugar at the bottom, four pieces of the Amriki sawdust bread and four foil-wrapped triangles of cheese. “Chai?” Great Big Man asks, smiling broadly.

“Yes!” we say.

He pours hot tea from a dented kettle and serves each of us, beginning with Norman, as if we are honoured guests. The tea—warm, sweet, instantly comforting—fills me with ravenous hope. Does this generosity mean we’re going to be released? Is today the day? I can’t handle another minute of this.

Great Big Man jumps up—he’s just remembered something important. He goes into the kitchen and returns with a jar of marmalade. “Good, good,” he says. Our breakfast sits in front of us. We wait to see if they’re going to remove our handcuffs. “Akeel, akeel!” Great Big Man says, gesturing towards the tray. He takes the bread, breaks it, gives us each a piece. “Hubis Amriki. Good.” He points to the silver triangles. “Franci. Zane.” We’re eating in our handcuffs.

“This in Canada?” Young Moustache Man asks.

“No, I don’t think so.” I open one of the triangles. It’s some kind of processed cheese spread.

“This in Britannia?” he asks.

“Oh yes,” Norman said. “It’s made in France. It’s called Babybel.”

It’s a difficult procedure, extracting the soft cheese from the foil and getting it onto the bread. The others just use their fingers and lick them clean. I am revolted. In accordance with my mother’s strict training in table manners and hand hygiene, I use the foil to spread the cheese on my bread, being careful not to get any on my hands.

We pour the marmalade directly onto our bread from the jar and use our wrappers to spread it. I am aghast when the others lick marmalade off their foil. Proper manners apply even in captivity.

“Good?” Young Moustache Man asks. He’s been watching intently, hunching forward with his elbows resting on his thighs.

“Yes, very good,” Harmeet says. The rest of us nod vigorously. It’s the best breakfast I’ve ever had.

Back to sitting against the wall. Harmeet asks what the term haji means. We’ve been using it when speaking to the captors. Tom says it’s a term of respect for somebody who’s completed the haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. It’s also an honorific for an older person. Harmeet wonders if we should be using it. He thinks it could be misunderstood. I ask him what he means. He says every war has its terms. In the Second World War it was kraut. In the Vietnam War it was gook. In Afghanistan now it’s raghead, and in Iraq it’s haji. “I don’t even like to say those words,” he says.

I’m irritated. I feel Harmeet is being overly scrupulous. I say we’re using it to communicate respect. Harmeet says we can’t be sure how it might sound to them. I say I don’t think there’s much chance that it’ll be misunderstood. Iraqis refer to each other that way, especially when a younger person is speaking to an older man. It’s a culturally acceptable way of addressing people—the equivalent of calling someone sir.

“Language changes,” Harmeet says. “It can come to mean different things, depending especially on who’s speaking.”

I feel myself bristling. I can’t tell if he’s agreeing or disagreeing. I decide to change the subject. “I wish I knew what to call them. Maybe we should give them names, even just to use for ourselves.”

Norman says it has to be something respectful. Tom agrees. “Names are important. The names we choose will affect how we relate to them.”

We start with Young Moustache Man. “He definitely seems like a junior player,” Harmeet says.

“Yeah, he’s kind of like a grown-up kid,” I say. I throw out Kidnap Kid, The Kid, Boy Scout. They don’t like any of these.

“Perhaps we should call him Junior, as Harmeet suggests,” Norman says. “He does seem to be the junior partner in this nefarious enterprise.”

It is agreed. The Great Big Man is next. “I have the perfect name,” I say. “Big Foot.”

“It doesn’t seem very respectful,” Tom says.

“It’s like a fun nickname. There can’t be too many people in the world with feet that thick,” I say.

“I don’t like it,” Harmeet says. “It makes him sound like a Sasquatch.”

“A Sasquatch?” Norman says. “I don’t believe I’m familiar with the term.”

“It’s a legend about a giant apelike creature people have apparently sighted in North America. It’s also called Bigfoot.”

“Oh dear. I shouldn’t think that would be a very good name,” Norman says.

None of us can think of a name.

“What about the one who wears the funny-coloured suit jackets, the one who brought the medicine?” Norman says.

“How about Medicine Man?” Harmeet says. We immediately agree. It’s perfect.

Someone enters the room. It’s Junior, I can tell from the breathing. “Come on,” he says. “This in TV.” We follow him into the living room and stand waiting for his next instruction. “This in TV! Ogod!” he says angrily, pointing at the couches. We sit. “This Khazim! This Khazim!” he cries, pointing to a crooning pop star on the television. Junior sits down and watches entranced, softly mouthing the words.

We sit like this for hours. My eyes wander aimlessly, follow the plaster moulding and cracks in the ceiling, return always to the ring of keys on the shelf next to the television.

Sometime in the middle of the afternoon, Great Big Man enters the room holding a large metal can and a skeleton key. He asks Junior a question. Junior, absorbed in the television, doesn’t answer. Great Big Man kicks him in the leg. “La petrol” is all I understand. Great Big Man opens the door into the four-by-five-foot window well with the key. He leaves it in the lock, steps into the window well and kneels down in front of a rusty barrel sitting on a metal stand. He opens a spigot at the bottom of the barrel and starts filling the metal can. The smell of kerosene fills the room. Junior gets up from the couch, stretches lazily and saunters over to the door. He stands with his back to us, right foot crossed over his left, his right arm above his head, leaning against the doorway.

I put my feet flat on the floor and make ready to spring. Twenty feet, five or six steps, two seconds. One hard shove is all it would take. Junior collides with Great Big Man, the two men lose their balance and fall helpless into the window well. While they struggle to get back on their feet, I close the door and turn the key. And just like that, we are free.

Harmeet flashes me a look. He knows what I’m thinking. He shakes his head. I break from his gaze. There isn’t much time. My body is exploding with adrenalin. I have only one chance. What about guns? They appear not to have them. Even if they do, it won’t matter, we can easily move out of their line of fire. The crucial thing is the door itself. It will have to close in a single slam. If it doesn’t shut easily, or if the key doesn’t turn, the captors will be able to push against the door and stop me from locking them out. Is this the careless moment I’ve been waiting for?

Great Big Man stands up with the kerosene can and Junior steps back from the doorway. My heart sinks. I’ve waited too long. I sit back and stare at the television. Great Big Man steps into the living room. I hold my breath and watch carefully as Junior swings the door closed. He has to grab the handle with both hands and lever the door into place with his shoulder before it will close. Thank God. I made the right decision.

The music videos continue. Junior slouches next to Tom, eyes glassy, remote sitting on his stomach. A video suddenly catches his attention. Tight, up-close shots of a scantily clad female vocalist. Junior sits up and bites his fingers. He points to the TV, laughs, turns to Tom with a conspiratorial grin. “Good?” he says. “This in Amriki?” Tom nods blankly. Junior turns to Harmeet. “Harmeet! Good? Sadika?”

Harmeet shrugs and laughs. “I don’t know. She’s not really my type.”

“Jim!” Junior says, his eyes bright with desire. “This good? This in Canada?”

I nod and smile. Yes, very good, I say. I turn my eyes back to the television and hope that my face hasn’t turned red.

I pass the test. Junior turns to Norman. “Doctor! This in television good?”

Norman waves his hand and laughs. “I’m too old,” he jokes.

The Sacred Heart comforts and settles me. My eyes return again and again to the picture hanging on the wall, presumably left by the previous occupants of the house. I used to despise this pious, otherworldly Jesus, the vacuous heavenward stare, robes and hair flowing in saccharine cascades. Storybook camp for the spiritually infantile, I used to think, until one summer Sunday in a little country church located on the banks of the Saugeen River, during the second summer of our Catholic Worker farm community experiment, the Sacred Heart changed my heart.

I was early for a change. I genuflected, slipped into a back pew, waited for my eyes to adjust to the stained-glass light. I’d seen them many times before, the statues bookending the altar, Jesus reaching outwards with his nail-pierced hands, Mary pointing towards her chest, both of their red burning hearts exposed. This time, though, instead of being repelled, I was startled by their uncompromising vulnerability, their unflinching openness towards the world. Everything and everyone was welcome. It didn’t matter who you were or what you’d done, whether you were an inquisitive child or an aching grandmother, a wild Janjaweed raider or an Abu Ghraib interrogator, the Sacred Heart was ready in greeting, without fear, arms and heart wide open. Thus, I began to see the Sacred Heart as a profound meditation on human freedom and the power of the disarmed life. When you know who you are, a no-matter-what loved child of God, you become like the Sacred Heart, your arms and heart wide open, free and ready to embrace anyone, do anything, go anywhere.

I next met the Sacred Heart during a visit to Auschwitz. It was on the wall of Cell Block 11, the Gestapo hellhole where the most exquisite tortures were inflicted on dissidents and resisters—a young, bearded Jesus etched into plaster, eyes luminous, halo, robes, heart exposed in the centre of his chest, the arm of someone kneeling in front of him and reaching across his waist, the shoulder of the arm stripped to bone. Stephan Jansienski, a member of the Polish underground captured in 1944, had carved it with his fingernail. Tears filled my eyes. Even here the Sacred Heart. Even here.

And here you are again, hanging on the wall of this insurgent safe house. You have found me even though I have been disappeared off the face of the earth. There is no dungeon you will not enter, no suffering you will not accompany. And if you are with me, even if the worst happens, somehow or other it’ll be okay.

Junior points excitedly at the television. “This action film! Action film!” He puffs out his chest and flexes his biceps. “Action film Amriki!” The movie is called Con Air.

“Oh dear,” Norman says. “I’m afraid Wallace and Gromit is more my speed.”

We settle in to watch. It’s unbelievably bad, an over-the-top bacchanalia of adolescent violence, but still it’s a welcome relief from the all-day barrage of incomprehensible Arabic television. Nicolas Cage is Cameron Poe, a highly decorated U.S. Army Ranger on his way home after serving a wrongful seven-year sentence for manslaughter. He’s shackled hand and foot on a prison air transport of America’s most dangerous criminals.

“Hey, that’s just like us,” Harmeet says, holding up his hands and pointing to the prisoners in their handcuffs. Junior looks over at him and scowls. We watch as two of the prisoners extract pieces of wire they have embedded in the palms of their hands.

“Don’t tell me they’re going to pick the lock and escape,” I groan. This is exactly what happens.

“Yeah, right,” Tom scoffs. It’s so ridiculous it has to be lampooned. As if reading my mind, Tom calls out to Junior and mimics picking open his handcuffs. I laugh. Junior turns towards me. I hunch my shoulders, look furtively left and right, grimace with pain as I pretend to pull a piece of wire out of my hand. Junior glares angrily. He doesn’t think jokes about escaping are funny.

I try to explain. I point to the television. “This action film Amriki, Hollywood. Hollywood action film mozane … no good … stupid.” I circle my index finger at my temple in the universal sign language for “crazy.”

Junior scowls. I’m only digging myself in deeper. I look chastened and turn my attention back to the movie.

It is maybe eight o’clock. They’ve turned the channel to Al Jazeera. We watch grim footage of burning vehicles, body parts, bloody survivors. Number One stands behind us in the doorway, watching through the green towel. They’re angry, gesture at the television, shake their heads.

“Who do you think we are?” Number One says. No one responds. “Who do you think we are? Jim?”

“I don’t know. You are fighting for Iraq.”

“Doctor? Who are we?”

“I don’t know,” Norman says.

“Tom?”

“You are mujahedeen,” Tom answers.

“We are Iraqi. We are not al-Zarqawi. We are not terrorists. We are different. We are fighting for Iraqi freedom.”

“In the West you would be called freedom fighters,” Tom says.

“What this, Tom, freedom fighters?” Number One says menacingly.

“Freedom fighter. It’s a word for someone who is fighting for their freedom,” Tom says.

“No,” Number One says. “We are mujahedeen. We are fighting for Iraq, not for George Bush freedom.” He pauses. “We have some video of our organization. Would you like to see it? This very secret.” We don’t answer. He asks again. Harmeet says yes. My body starts shivering. “Good. I show you. But remember, you must not to look at me. This very dangerous.”

Junior points to where he wants us to sit, on the floor in front of the TV. He is excited.

“I hope you guys don’t mind. I’m just really curious. Maybe we’ll learn something,” Harmeet says to us. I don’t say anything. I’m profoundly uneasy. I wish he hadn’t said yes. What are they about to show us? Where is this going to lead?

Great Big Man inserts a DVD into the player. Junior turns off the light and sits on the floor, hugging his knees. The video begins. Flames boil wildly and fade to black. “This mujahedeen,” he says, pride fluttering in his voice like a flag. I feel sick. Arabic script rolls across the screen. Music. Men’s voices, haunting, menacing, undulating, marching in a revolutionary anthem. An endless sequence of exploding tanks and Humvees, burning military vehicles, masked men launching mortars.

Junior jumps up and points excitedly at the television. He rewinds the DVD. We watch it again: a bomb rips through a Humvee, there’s a spray of black smoke, debris arcs through the air. Junior points to two black objects twisting in the trajectory of the blast. It’s the charred rag-doll bodies of two soldiers hurtling through the air. “Amriki! Amriki!” he cries, delightedly. I close my eyes in horror. These were human beings! I want to cry out. I swallow hard to hold the words back.

Laughing, Junior rewinds the DVD and plays it again. I shake my head in protest. No one can see me in the dark. The DVD plays through. I watch like a block of stone. Yet again, silence in exchange for survival.

The time has finally come for us to go to bed. I thought the day would never end. We collect our bedding from the other room and set ourselves up in the middle of the living room. One of the mats is thinner than all the others—the one I slept on last night. I secretly hope someone else gets stuck with it.

“I’ll sleep here tonight,” Harmeet says, pointing to the thin mat. “I had one of the thicker ones last night.”

“Thomas. This,” Junior says, pointing to the outside edge of the communal bed. Tom moves to his assigned position. Junior points to the place next to Tom. “Doctor. This nam,” he says. I end up next to Norman—on the thin mat. Of course, I think. That’s what happens when you want something too much. We settle into our places and Junior uses three narrow blankets to cover us. Harmeet and Tom, on the outside, are barely covered.

“I have something I’d like to say,” Norman whispers. Harmeet and Tom move closer in order to hear. He wants us to pass a message on to his wife, in case we are separated and the Canadians are released first. He chokes up, fights to get the words out. Four things, he says. He’s sorry for what’s happened, he asks for her forgiveness, he loves her, and he thanks her for forty good years.

“What this!” we hear. We look up from our huddle. Junior is standing over us with his hands on his hips.

“I was just talking about my wife,” Norman says.

“Norman’s madam,” Tom says.

Junior’s eyes narrow. “No talk! Nam! Nam!” He turns out the light. I lie on my back and watch the television’s blue light flicker on the ceiling.

I must have fallen asleep. The next thing I know, the lights are on and Junior is shouting “La firar! La firar!” as he tears the blankets away.

“What’s going on?” I say, completely bewildered.

“Shut up!” Junior says. He slaps me in the face and grabs my handcuffs. He locks my right hand to Harmeet and my left to Norman. The ratchet bites into my wrist so hard I can’t close my hand. “Amriki mozane. La firar,” I hear him say, his voice full of loathing.

Great Big Man locks a chain around the wooden arm of the couch and then around Tom’s wrist. This outrages me. We’re not dogs! Junior gives us another angry blast and throws the blankets over our heads. The lights go out and the television falls silent. The captors converse in low voices as they settle into their places.

I replay the events over and over in my mind. La firar, he said. “No escape.” Did he think one of us was trying to escape? Harmeet and Norman certainly hadn’t tried anything. Had Tom? That was very unlikely. Junior must’ve been spooked, either by our mimicking of the handcuff escape scene, Norman’s whispered message, or both. It makes me realize that the simplest misunderstanding could be a death sentence.

I can’t sleep for all the pounding in my ears. Is it fear or rage? Rage. A screaming hurricane of it. I want out. I want this to end. This and the mad, stupefying, demonic waste of war that’s put all of this in motion. I want it all to end right now.

When I’m sure the captors are asleep, I tilt my head back and use my chin to fold the blanket down. It takes me several tries but I eventually manage to push it off my face. Calmed by this tiny act of defiance, the storm of rage passes and I gird myself for the long night ahead.