Excerpt: 'American Hostage'

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.

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