Excerpt: 'American Hostage'

Since we had an hour to kill before a meeting with Mr. Hamdani at the Nasiriyah Museum, with my camera back we decided to film the market.

We headed first to a nearby Internet center so I could check messages. Public places were not safe for foreigners, but I blended in so well by now that no one noticed me unless I spoke: Iraqi haircut, the sort of beige plaid polyester shirt that almost every Iraqi man owned, and, most importantly, a bushy mustache. Amir sat me down at a computer and whispered to me not to say a word, then disappeared to run an errand.

Internet centers had sprung up all over Iraq shortly after the war, and were full most days with young men chatting by Internet phone or instant messenger with relatives and friends all over the world. Use of personal computers and Internet communication with the outside world was heavily restricted during the time of Saddam, so most Iraqis typed awkwardly, with two fingers. I sat quietly and checked for an email from Marie-Hélène. Nothing. She was traveling and it would be difficult for her to get her email, but the empty inbox was a disappointment. It had been over a week since her last message. Traveling in Iraq had always been dangerous while we were together, but in the two weeks since she'd left things seemed to be getting considerably worse. I wanted to keep her updated on my whereabouts, but since she had not yet replied to my last email, I decided to wait.

I sent an email to John Burns, the New York Times bureau chief in Baghdad, with an update on the road to Nasiriyah. We'd eaten lunch together the day before to discuss a follow-up article I would write about the looting. He'd been surprised when I'd told him that the Mahdi Army, a Shi'ite militia loyal to the powerful cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, had set up checkpoints along the road in plain view of Iraqi police checkpoints. It meant the Iraqi forces were clearly not in control. I also sent one to my mother in which I confessed,

to tell you the truth, i have to drive through mahdi army checkpoints and sometime battles every other day… anyway, back early next week. i am down in nasiriyah, where the mahdi army work hand-in-hand with the local police. they are just kids, and generally they are not aggressive towards foreigners, but it's good to keep a low profile.

This was the first time in six months I had told her anything about the dangers I faced -- perhaps because this was my last trip down to Nasiriyah, perhaps because I was growing confident that I had made it through my five-month journey safely.

Amir returned and we set out to visit the market. The civil guards hired to protect the archaeological sites often carried their own guns, purchased at places like the market. I wanted a few minutes of video footage of gun sellers for our documentary about the looting of archaeological sites and the efforts to protect them. Nothing fancy, just some solid background shots of a gun market.

I carried carefully chosen items, nothing that would make me stand out as a foreigner, and nothing that would identify me as an American if I was stopped. My glasses were hidden in my shirt pocket -- you don't wear them if you don't want to look Western -- and I brought only the essentials: my press card, watch, wallet, and the small camera. My wallet held only cash, American dollars, as common as Iraqi dinar.

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