Excerpt: 'American Hostage'

"Take it! Take it!" he implored, while yelling and waving at me to go back to the car.

The enraged man held the machine gun at waist level, pointing it at my stomach. I looked at him for a second as he stared back at me, still shouting, his hands shaking with fury. I was amazed that he did not fire the gun. How easy it would have been to shoot me at that moment.

Determined to get back to the car, I quickly turned and walked away, pretending I had nothing to do with the chaos. Young men were fast filling the street, drawn by the commotion. As I walked past the first gun seller, the one whose picture I had taken with his friend, he turned and asked in Arabic, "What happened?"

Afraid that ignoring his question would raise suspicion, I shrugged my shoulders and said "Ma ba'raf," which means "I don't know" in Arabic. Egyptian Arabic.

I wanted to grab the words as they left my mouth, the look on his face confirming my mistake. The moment hung like dust clouds from the feet of children rushing into the fracas, then fell as he seized on my words, his face erupting in rage and excitement. Jabbing his finger in the air at me, he began shouting, "FOREIGNER!"

A spark had been lit and the market exploded. A deep vein -- a history of oppression, tension, distrust, and hatred of the West -- had ruptured, and emotions flooded the marketplace in an uncontrollable stream. Immediately there were men everywhere, fingers...faces...hands grabbing at me. A small child thrust his full hand into my back pocket until he managed to wrestle out my wallet. I saw his little face light up as he ran off looking at the cash inside. My glasses -- I didn't see them go. A large knife appeared, held in the left hand of a man whose right hand gripped my collar. He looked over his shoulder toward the man with the machine gun for some indication of whether he should use it.

I was just a few feet from the car now, but the car was empty, the driver's door wide open. Hope fled, faster than Hatem. I thought of running, but I would have to break free from this man with the knife. The others had guns. I wouldn't make it a block. And what about Amir?

The crowd that had swarmed Amir caught up, and the two crowds became one teeming mob. I managed to push my back up against a wall, holding up my press card, shouting, "JOURNALIST, FRENCH, FRANÇAIS, FRENCH, SADIQI, SADIQI," which means "friend." If I said I was an American I was dead.

"French?" a man asked. He was well dressed and seemed thoughtful, duly considering the commotion.

"NAM, FRANÇAIS, SADIQI." Yes, French, friend, I yelled, trying to reason with him.

"French, no sadiqi," he replied firmly, correcting me.

I thought, Yes, yes sadiqi, but his tone was so final and so full of anger, I realized it hardly mattered. My words dropped lifelessly from my mouth, my spirit with them. If the French, well regarded throughout Iraq, weren't their friends, who were?

Out of the madness Amir appeared, still shouting in Arabic, and next to him was the enraged man, still holding the machine gun. Pushing through the crowd, he came straight up to me with deep concentrated anger and said in staccato English, "I have an issue with you!"

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