Excerpt: 'American Hostage'

On Aug. 13, 2003, documentary filmaker Micah Garen was kidnapped by Iraqi insurgents while shooting video in an Iraqi market.

Knowing the fates of journalists Daniel Pearl and Nick Berg, whose kidnappings ended in their deaths, Garen's family feared the worst when the kidnappers released a video threatening to kill him if the United States did not withdraw from the city of Najaf within 48 hours.

But Garen's girlfriend and film collaborator, Marie-Helen Carleton, and Garen's family were able to secure his release 10 days after his kidnapping by appealing to Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric who controlled the captors.

Garen and Carleton have written a book together chronicling the experience, "American Hostage" (Simon & Schuster).

The couple is currently completing their film … and planning a wedding. Hours after his release, Garen proposed to Carleton via satellite phone.

You can read an excerpt from "American Hostage" below.

Micah, Friday, August 13

The four-hour drive south from Baghdad to Nasiriyah was quiet. I kept my eyes down as we passed a Mahdi Army checkpoint on the main road just outside the town of Fajr, the center for Iraq's illicit antiquities trade. One hundred yards farther was a modest Iraqi police checkpoint. The twin checkpoints signaled an uneasy truce that had been struck in the Dhi Qar province, while just a few hours east in Najaf fighting raged between the Mahdi Army and Coalition forces. We drove past the two checkpoints without slowing down. They were a token show of force by both sides, a delicate balance. Stopping cars might upset the balance.

We arrived in Nasiriyah at 10 a.m. and stopped outside Amir's small translation office in the center of town. Amir got out of the car, looked both ways to see that everything was okay; then I quickly followed him up the stairs with my bags. I didn't know where I would stay that night. I was no longer welcome at the Italian base and had not heard back from my request earlier in the week to stay at the American base. The local hotel for foreigners, the Al-Janoub, was too dangerous. That left the Nasiriyah Museum, Amir's office, or possibly his house, none of which were good options.

Amir told me to wait, saying he had good news, and went out, padlocking the door behind him for my safety. I sat on his old sofa thumbing through a worn copy of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, one of many books that lay scattered around his cluttered office, the walls papered with pictures of Don Quixote, French philosophers, and works by local artists.

Amir returned a half hour later, smiling, holding my small digital camera. The camera was the smallest of the half dozen we carried, a pocket digital that could shoot a few minutes of grainy video, allowing us to film or photograph without drawing much attention or suspicion. It had been stolen two days before by one of the guards at the Nasiriyah Museum. Mr. Hamdani, an archaeologist and antiquities inspector for the Dhi Qar province, who looked after the museum, had managed to apply enough pressure and, in Amir's words, "the situation was resolved."

"Which guard was it?" I asked.

"Don't worry," Amir said, "your camera is back."

"But which one?" I insisted.

"The one who helped you look for it." That was the way things were done. It mattered less who was responsible than that the camera had been returned safely.

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.

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.

"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!"

Pleading with him, I remembered a phrase I had never used before: Ana bisharbic, which literally means "I am in your mustache." It was an Iraqi tribal saying that I had been taught by Munawar, our driver, translator, and friend in Baghdad, meant for just this occasion, when you are without options and you have to beg for protection. In Iraqi tribal tradition, if someone asks for your protection, it is shameful to refuse. To my astonishment, it worked. The man suddenly calmed down. He looked bothered that I knew the phrase, and so I repeated it again, advancing toward him, trying to convey sincerity, trying to communicate a simple message: I meant no harm, it was a misunderstanding. He moved away, absorbed by the crowd, and that was the last I saw of him.

But the crowd was out of control and he no longer mattered. They continued to press madly, tearing at our clothes and tugging us in different directions, like a giant rugby scrum, with no sense of direction or purpose. Amir and I managed to force our way to an appliance shop across the street, and I pushed myself into a seat facing the door. Amir tried desperately to get the owner to close the metal gate as the crowd streamed in. "What will happen to my shop?" the owner protested, afraid to help.

"Call the police, call the police!" Amir begged as he hung from the gate, trying to pull it down himself.

At least one person, possibly the man with the knife, had stayed close to me and was perched to my left with his hand on my shoulder. He seemed more focused than the others, cleanly dressed with short hair. Another man stuck a hand in my right front pocket, shouting at me as he tried to take my journal. We locked in a tug-of-war as I desperately held on to it and my seat, but he tore it from my hands, opening it violently, certain he would find something incriminating. There were two business cards from friends in the Italian army tucked in the pages, and I was sure he would seize on them. All that was left was my press pass and my watch.

The well-dressed man who had shadowed me said in English, "Come with me" and pulled me out of the chair by my shirt, a gun grasped firmly in his other hand. The crowd parted as he led Amir and me out. In front of the shop, a small four-door car was waiting in the dirt road. Two men with pistols pushed Amir and me into the back seat, the man with Amir getting in on his side. With the three of us, the back seat was almost full. My shadow tried to get in, but I kept my elbow out so he couldn't manage it. The car was not going to move until he got in and shut the door. The driver looked around to see what the problem was. After a few seconds, I realized there was nowhere to go with this idea and relented. My shadow forced his way in, half on my lap holding himself up by the plastic hand strap from the roof, slammed the door, and the car started off.

In the front passenger seat, a man with one deeply reddened eye was shouting furiously in Arabic and waving his pistol in the air, intermittently looking back and pointing the pistol at me.

"Amir, where are they taking us?" I asked in a hushed voice between the man's outbursts.

"I don't know. Be quiet."

I stared at the man's reddened eye as it flashed back at me in brief spasms of fury, unable to think of much but that eye -- an infection he was fighting, rage against foreign bodies, and a grotesque symbol of the impoverishment and lack of health care in that part of the country.

After five months in Iraq, I was supposed to leave in just a few days. Instead, a new journey, not of my choosing, had begun.

Copyright (c) 2005 by Zeugma & Company, Inc.