Excerpt: 'American Hostage'

The market in Nasiriyah, just east of the main square adorned with a statue of Habubi, a poet and religious leader who fought for freedom against the British in 1915, was a few minutes by car from Amir's office. Rows of stalls, shops, and street vendors' carts overflowed with commerce. You could buy almost anything there: posters of Shi'ite religious leaders, video CDs of Friday prayers and recent fighting filmed by the Madhi Army, secondhand books, Quranic texts, plastic sandals, vegetables, furniture, televisions, and satellite dishes. The part of the market where guns were sold was a short, dusty road lined on both sides with shops, easily missed if one wasn't looking closely. We parked and got out of the car. Hatem, our 17-year-old driver, waited patiently in the driver's seat.

The gun sellers discreetly displayed their wares on old wooden boxes or cloths laid on the ground. We approached the first man. Trying to gain his trust, I bent down to admire his pistols, about five of them, neatly laid out on a box. Then, checking with Amir first, who nodded his head okay, I cautiously pulled out the small camera and began filming. The gun seller saw my camera and asked Amir if we could take a picture of him and a friend. I felt uncomfortable that they had noticed the camera. Was Amir nervous? He smiled and played along. The two put their arms around each other and smiled. I snapped a picture and showed them the digital image on the back. "Good," one said with a thumbs-up, to which I nodded my head and smiled. It was like swimming with sharks: unpredictable, they could turn on me at any time.

Farther down the narrow road, we passed a man standing next to a stool on top of which was a long, thick, black-metal tube with large holes running lengthwise. Genuinely curious about this monstrous piece of machinery, I walked over to look at it up close. It was some sort of machine gun with a bullet clip lying next to it that loaded from the side. I smiled at the man and turned to walk away. Amir suggested it was okay to photograph the man and his machine gun. Against my gut, I snapped a picture. The man suddenly became agitated. Only later would we learn that he had spent 10 years in an Iranian prison and was mentally disturbed.

Amir immediately called me over to delete the image, which I did, turning the camera to show the man that there was no image in the screen. It made no difference. He wanted the roll of film, but my camera was digital. His face reddened, his body stiffened, and he began shouting. A crowd gathered.

Amir tried to reason with him, but the man grabbed the machine gun off the stool and loaded the clip. As Amir spoke he squeezed the trigger, firing a short burst at Amir's feet, the bullets absorbed by the ground in small clouds of dust. "Take it, take it," Amir pleaded, trying to give the man the camera, but the man was fixated on me.

"Go back to the car," Amir urged me in a grim whisper.

Nervously scanning the road, I began walking, making it about five feet before I heard another gunshot, so loud my shoulders flinched and my ears rang. I turned to see the angry face of a man who had just fired his pistol in the dirt a few steps behind me, a clear warning that I should not leave. Amir was doing his best to calm the enraged man with the machine gun. With frantic motions -- arms furiously working to control the growing storm of anger -- he tried pushing the camera into the gun seller's hands.

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