For me and for the rest of the battalion, he will carry the burden of that night's decision. He must live with the memories of his actions and their results. In war, nothing is black and white.Read More
The irony of it is simply staggering. How does a man go from living in palaces and being feared by every Iraqi citizen to living the existence of a pauper or, worse yet, as a caged animal?Read More
Editor's note: Staff photographer Cheryl Diaz Meyer has returned to Iraq to cover rebuilding efforts. In a personal journal, she reflects on the chaos she encountered at a Baghdad hospital. There, amid the disarray, watching women give birth in bare-bones conditions, she also found that life goes on. In March, she covered the war with Marines of the 2nd Tank Battalion. This report is based on an e-mail she sent to family, friends and colleagues.) December 2003.
BAGHDAD, Iraq - Their bright, intelligent eyes studied me, their stained white robes blending in with the dirty fingerprints on the walls. Midnight had come and gone... Then it was one... two ... three...four o'clock in the morning.
It was dark for miles around, and we were huddled in Kadhamiya Hospital, a safe haven in a city where gangs of criminals have been perfecting the art of ambushing unwary victims. It wasn't always this way. Certainly not during the time of Saddam Hussein, who was captured last weekend.
We were huddled in a bright, fluorescent-lighted room. And this time, I was a journalist from the Philippines. Yesterday, I was in Najaf, one of the holiest cities in Iraq for Shiite Muslims, and my translator decided I was Azerbaijani. Each day, he gets more and more creative. When I wake up in the mornings, I never know who I will be that day.
"Where are you from?" asked one of the doctors. I looked at my translator inquisitively.
"Where am I from, Saleem?"
"You are from the Philippines, of course, " he said with conviction.
We have come to Baghdad to do a story about the security situation in Iraq. We had planned to follow the ambulances around for the night. But the hospital wasn't dispatching the ambulances. There is no working phone system in Baghdad, and the injured would never make it to the hospital if they waited for an ambulance.
So I gave up on that plan around 9 p.m. and decided to focus on the patients already in the hospital, one of only two in Baghdad with an emergency room.
Hours passed. The doctors were supposed to be sleeping during their night rotation. But they found the presence of a journalist a welcome respite from their daily routine. They kept me company during my overnight vigil waiting for victims of violence.
But the only patients who came in were women – robed in long, black, billowing abbayas – pain etched on every inch of their faces. They were in labor, and the doctors couldn't be bothered to get up. Instead, they waved the women on to the third floor, the obstetrics department, which had one female doctor for most of the night.
The obstetrics department handles an average of 30 births per day. Once a woman is dilated, she has about 20 minutes to give birth before the next woman is shuffled onto the birthing table. A gloved hand and a pair of scissors expedite the process.
"Greed will be the downfall of Iraq, " said one doctor in clear, concise English.
The simplicity, eloquence and truth of that statement made me want to cry. Looting during and after the war was so widespread that not a person was left unaffected.
But I have found that in this country of great paradox, one sees the most despicable deeds and the most inconceivable acts of honor. In such extreme circumstances, humans are pushed to their limits, and the truth of character is revealed.
The hospitals in Baghdad are a pathetic mess. They have a shortage of medicine, medical equipment and supplies. The stench is a combination of blood, pharmaceuticals and human excrement.
But the problem is not simply a shortage of supplies – it's the greed of a staff that has been pilfering the hospital's supplies of medicine and equipment, alleged Dr. Esam, who is the brother of my translator.
Under Saddam, Iraqis learned to be creative in supplementing their meager wages by stealing the supplies in their care.
So when the doctor blew the whistle on the hospital's director after the war, he says he was offered a nice car and $20,000 to shut up. It would take 15 years to earn that sum on a doctor's salary in Iraq.
He declined and instead led a rebellion to oust the former Baathist – and succeeded. He didn't consider this particularly heroic in light of the fact that he had stayed in the hospital at the height of the war and fought off looters for several days. It's mainly because of his efforts that Kadhamiya Hospital is one of the better hospitals in Baghdad today.
"Don't trust anyone, not even my brother, the doctor, " whispered Saleem. But the doctors were educated enough to know that my Patagonia fleece top was probably not from the Philippines, my manner not quite of the Far East and my American accent came too easily.
I don't like this business of half-truths. But in Iraq today, it is a matter of life and death.
When asked, all the other U.S. photographers who are working in Iraq just laugh and say that they haven't been Americans in months.
Anger and antagonism
It's my first time back to Iraq since I covered the war in the spring as an embedded journalist with the Marines and then as a unilateral journalist in Baghdad. It's a very different place from the Baghdad I remember. The energy is different – both the energy of the U.S. military and that of the Iraqis.
The military has closed much of its book to journalists, my colleagues and I believe. Many in the public, meanwhile, believe that the media has told too many negative stories that scare people back home.
And the Iraqis have become angry at America and downright antagonistic toward Americans. The United States is the world's superpower and they believe it should be able to fix all their problems – quickly.
But here we are, eight months after the war's end and still they are suffering from shortages in fuel, sporadic electricity, garbage and sewage in the streets, high crime and, in their view, anarchy.
"Ah, what is this democracy?" my driver once screamed as we nearly collided with yet another car driving in the wrong direction.
I've given up on gasping every time we have a near fatality, because I can't stand the exhaust that gets sucked into my lungs from the thousands of vehicles vying for every inch of space on the road. Most vehicles spewing fumes here were made in the '70s and '80s, before the sanctions were imposed on Iraq, halting the country's progress for the last two decades.
Should Iraq have a democracy or a dictatorship? That was the question I posed to doctors in the Kadhamiya Hospital. Iraqis insist that they don't want a dictator. But a democracy will never work in Iraq either, the doctors said.
Because Iraqis are verry, verry different, they said, their bushy eyebrows flickering with meaning that I wasn't sure I grasped. How so? I asked, hoping to be enlightened.
Years of war have damaged the Iraqis, the doctors said. You can see it clearly in the children who will welcome a foreigner one moment and throw stones the next.
There is a deep and odd violence that characterizes the people. The lack of motivation and laziness is tantamount to a national illness. It will take several generations for this to change, the doctors said. Iraqis say they need a blend of democracy and dictatorship because the people are too uneducated to make decisions for themselves. They don't know the meaning of democracy.
To illustrate their point, the doctors told me a story. A woman was interviewed on a prominent TV network.
"Do you think Iraq should have a democracy, voting for a new president every four years?"
"Yes, democracy is great," she replied. "We could loot every four years."
I understood the doctors' complaints, because I have lived them these past 10 days in Baghdad. It is a verry, verry strange place.
In the hospital that night, I met a 22-year-old patient by the name of Mohannad. I only sort of met him, because he was actually under a blanket, his leg sticking out, wrapped in bloody gauze.
He was comatose, drugged with Valium. He still had a bullet lodged in his leg, because it was Eid, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, and the surgeons were on vacation.
"Such bad luck to be shot during Eid," my translator remarked. "I fear that he might lose a leg because gangrene will develop in the bullet wound."
Mohannad was shot by a cousin. The cousin explained that Mohannad was being very bad. He had killed a man, and looted and robbed him.
Mohannad's family is financially comfortable. They own four cars. The problem is that all his criminal activity reflects badly on the family, and in a tribal society, this could bring some nasty results if a victim's family decided to exact revenge on Mohannad's family.
So the family decided that in order to save the family honor, Mohannad should be killed. The cousin, a policeman, was designated to do the job. But the cousin decided to shoot him in the leg instead, because Allah prohibits killing, he said.
And so now he watched over his cousin, hoping his recovery would take a long time.
Eventually, the doctors caught on to me, and I let Saleem weave the final touches to the tale of my identity. It's great to be back in Baghdad.
Editor's note: Photographer Cheryl Diaz Meyer went to the Middle East in January, rode into Iraq with Marines of the 2nd Tank Battalion in March, then covered the war's aftermath from Baghdad. There, before she left this month, she befriended a remarkable woman amid the rubble. May 2003.
BAGHDAD, Iraq - Waving a small white flag in one hand and clutching her 14-year-old daughter with the other, Dr. Suaad Abdulla made her way slowly and resolutely toward the decades-old Baghdad Gate at the outskirts of the city, down the six-lane President's Highway guarded by U.S. soldiers and the ghostly remains of Iraqi tanks.
She felt the fear in the sweat of her daughter's delicate hand, but she pressed onward.
It was early April, and American troops were prepared to penetrate the Iraqi capital. A Kuwaiti translator for the U.S. Army yelled through a loudspeaker for all Iraqis to go home, and that was exactly what she was doing. As she approached the tanks, she pointed to the wreckage on the other side of the gate, the remains of the home she helped build.
In the smoky light, the tanks parted to create a path for her and her daughter. Dr. Abdulla, a veterinarian, and her family had been living at a friend's house.
She had returned to save her documents, a collection of papers pertaining to her house, her farm, her water rights to the river that runs through her property, the fodder businesses stolen from her - proof of years of legal battles with Saddam Hussein's bureaucracy.
The bits of paper will one day help her rebuild her life with her husband, Taha Al Musawi, and their six children.
I will remember Dr. Abdulla for a long time. In a land where the roles and expectations of women have been strictly defined for centuries, I was surprised to find a woman who combined steely strength, warm sentimentality and intelligence infused with wisdom.
Our encounter was a precious gift to me – she showed me the best of Iraq in the most trying of times, a dignity of spirit that made me richer for simply having experienced it.
In late March, Dr. Abdulla's yard and the area around the Baghdad Gate had teemed with Iraqi tanks, soldiers, artillery and missile launchers. Dr. Abdulla and her family decided to stay at a friend's house. Her husband, a police captain, remained at his station, which he was ordered to protect.
As American forces advanced toward Baghdad, most of the Iraqi soldiers fled, leaving an arsenal of weapons on her property.
On April 3, the bombardment of Baghdad Gate began. From a grove of trees in the distance, Dr. Abdulla, who had taken some of her children back to the house to bathe, watched as each piece of Iraqi weaponry was bombed, sending exploding mortar rounds and rockets in all directions, five of which landed in their house.
After three days, a sizzling, smoking skeleton was all that remained of the four-bedroom home and veterinary clinic. The land was littered with the charred remains of tanks, artillery and rocket shells.
Dr. Abdulla's husband finally returned. The family guarded their property from looters by day and received protection from the U.S. Army at night.
Sweets and flowers
The soldiers brought the children sweets, and the children in turn brought the soldiers flowers. The men became familiar with the aroma of the flat, crusty bread Dr. Abdulla baked daily in the stone oven behind her house.
One by one, she learned their names from the embroidered letters on their helmets and khaki uniforms: Jackson, Hanson, Oliver, Abdulhay.
"They shared with us everything they had, " said Dr. Abdulla. "They were so sorry about our house because it was not an American military mistake, it was an Iraqi military mistake." She said she understood that her house was damaged by U.S. bombing because the Iraqi soldiers placed weapons there.
After 10 days, the soldiers left for another mission. The soldier named Jackson had left the family with a beautiful blanket, but it could not protect them from the looting that followed.
"Day by day, the situation becomes more difficult, because weak people who can't control themselves do wrong," said Dr. Abdulla. A neighbor farmer tried to divert her water to his property, and that escalated into gunfire and the gravest of insults: She called the old man a woman.
She defended her farm, firing several threatening shots into the air with her AK-47. Men from the neighboring family later apologized, not to her, but to her husband.
Almost daily, thieves stole from the family – a pistol, a short-wave radio, money. Rumors began to circulate that women were being taken from their families in Baghdad. Dr. Abdulla began to fear for her daughters, who range in age from 14 to 4.
"We need a brave, strong and wise leader, because we are too divided," she said. "Maybe we'll find a leader, then later kill him. We love to kill our leaders – and then we cry. From past, present to the future, it's the same."
The bejeweled bride
Suaad Abdulla and Taha Al Musawi met when she was 13 years old and he was a 27-year-old police officer. They married when she was 19 and a veterinary student at Baghdad University.
The wedding took place at her father's home in Basra in 1987. Iraq was at war with Iran at that time, and the ceremony was cut short when the city came under Iranian artillery bombardment. The traditional sum of $27,000 was paid to her father, and the bejeweled bride left with her new husband for Baghdad.
Mr. Al Musawi so prized his bride that he gave her seven rings, three necklaces and six bracelets – a total of 300 grams of gold – for their wedding. She wore all of it on their wedding day.
He helped her study and raise the children. "He always wanted me to be the most beautiful woman wherever we went, so he encouraged me to wear makeup," she said.
ON THE ROAD TO BAGHDAD - I'm sitting in the back of an amphibious assault vehicle, and my stomach is turning, over and over. The cracking of the machine guns being loaded with magazines and the chic, chic, chic of pistols being cleared of dust is seeping into my thoughts.
I look around with deliberation, and my eyes rest on the stretchers hung behind me and the many boxes of ammunition. Infantrymen are lined up on a makeshift bench with half their bodies poking out of the hatch of the vehicle.
Finally my eyes focus and I read, silently, "100 Cartridges, Cal 50, LC 92D621L437, " and I keep reading those words and letters and numbers over and over again, just because I can. I can do that. Of that, I have control. But of the situation I have put myself in, I have none.
I may have joined a suicide mission.
As dawn emerged that day, I found myself in a hurry for no apparent reason. As soon as I packed up my sleeping bag and my belongings, I found out that the infantry division attached to the 2nd Tank Battalion was leaving on a mission into central Baghdad.
Word had filtered in that Fox Company 1/5 had faced terrible adversity in Baghdad with a number of casualties, and Fox Company 2/5 was asked to come to Baghdad to help.
The sergeants were yelling orders, and the men hurried to pack their meager belongings and prepare their weapons. The air was full of dust and pulsing with tension.
I was trying to glean information about the mission when my pal, Rob, of CBS Radio, encouraged me to go on the mission. I asked whether he was going, and he said, "No! Do I look nuts? Go!"
Rob has been my second eyes on this trip and has often been the source of many of my photos. It's occurred to me that it's the people around me who make me a better journalist. I somehow find myself surrounded by people who care, who look out for me, who share information with me.
Serendipity plays a large part in my life, and I have learned to listen to the signs that clarify the path. They are subtle, and they require me to let things happen with only mild guidance. Not an easy task for someone who likes to be in control.
But in the end, I am always surprised by how right and clear the path appears. Serendipity brought me to the 2nd Tank Battalion so that, as an embedded journalist, I was one of the first to enter Iraq. I have also been one of a handful of women covering the war from the front lines.
So I approached Capt. Terry Johnson, commanding officer of the Fox Company 2/5 Infantry Division, asked if I could join his men on their mission, and he agreed.
I went through my minimalist mental checklist: two cameras, batteries, flashcards, gas mask, Kevlar helmet, protective vest, water bottle, toilet paper. Check. Good to go, as Marines say.
There have been times in the past few years of being a photojournalist that I have asked myself whether I am crazy for doing what I do, and this was definitely one of those times.
If this were my last day, is this the life I wanted to live? I could die around men who know nothing of me. I am as anonymous to them as they are to me. They are in their camouflage uniforms; I am in my newfangled journalist khakis, custom-sewn by the finest military tailor in Kuwait. They call me "the Reporter."
These men refer to themselves as grunts. Their uniforms are ripped from digging fighting holes. They are wild. They are trained to clear buildings, combat the enemy at close range, flush out enemy combatants and secure the perimeter of encampments. They work like dogs. These men are courageous and insane.
A sergeant announced from under his communications helmet that we were taking sniper fire.
"It's starting, " said Navy Corpsman Cesar Espinoza, who promptly yelled "Snipers!" to the grunts.
I watched every movement of these camouflaged men in the hatch, memorizing each glance passed from man to man, each movement with a weapon that is so purposeful and practiced.
The tension was evident in every limb, the acute awareness of their surroundings. Every gesture seemed so full of meaning, and I felt somehow every moment should be recorded for posterity, because if this mission went bad, any one of them might not make it. The words Black Hawk Down were whispered among them.
* * *
We drove through Baghdad and were met by cheering crowds.
Families positioned themselves in the doorways to wave, smile and give us the thumbs-up. Women stared in disbelief and pointed me out to other women, waving excitedly. In the past, during other advances through villages, Iraqi women seemed very relieved to see me, a woman, in the midst of all the camouflage. I suppose they figure the Marines must be civilized if even one woman is present among them.
© 2003 Cheryl Diaz Meyer. All Rights Reserved.
The chances of an attack were high in an urban environment, where any tall building might have had snipers or rocket launchers. The men remained on high alert until we arrived at the campus of Baghdad College.
Hot tea in a kettle was discovered, two brand-new, looted diesel generators were parked near an office, and a puppy was found sleeping under a desk. The men also discovered showers, bathrooms and running water, of which many took advantage for laundry and bathing.
At this stop, I ran into Letta, the Newsday reporter who still had her hair in cornrows from before she left the camp in Kuwait. She was in a big, bad hurry to find a bathroom.
Our conversation led to topics such as how she fared in the field regarding privacy needs. She, too, had been embedded with several hundred Marine men. Since we left the camp in Kuwait, she apparently had suffered, trying to restrict her needs until nighttime.
But half the battalion was equipped with those pesky night-vision goggles. She said she was simply trying to "minimize the collateral damage."
I shared with her the secret of the poncho, for which I must credit Master Gunnery Sgt. Frank Cordero, who took pity on me my first day in the field. So with some embarrassment, I have been the Poncho Queen of the 2nd Tank Battalion. Once, we were in a convoy receiving enemy fire, and I successfully fulfilled my mission.
The other day we made a five-minute service stop. The area was entirely flat, so I picked the real estate to the front of the vehicle because only seven other vehicles were in sight, instead of 12. As I went under the poncho, I caught a glimpse of three men lined up about 20 feet to my right. As in a choreographed scene, they glanced back over their shoulders in unison, and when they saw I had picked my spot, they collectively agreed to settle in, too. These men, so tough, tiptoeing because there's Cheryl, armed with her poncho.
© 2003 Cheryl Diaz Meyer. All Rights Reserved.
* * *
One very long, impenetrably dark night, I was in a Humvee with Staff Sgt. Joseph Foster (nicknamed "Staffie"), 1st Sgt. Lew Dusett ("Big Joe") and Cpl. Ryan Jarreau ("Gyro.")
After days and nights of sitting for hours in the vehicle weighed down by our Kevlar helmets and protective vests, the topic of conversation kept wandering to diaper rash.
For me, those long days and long nights of convoys are over, for today I am leaving the 2nd Tank Battalion to settle in central Baghdad, where I will finish our photo coverage with stories of peacekeeping, policing and restoration efforts.
Camp has been pretty quiet since I returned two days ago, but today a rocket-propelled grenade landed in the midst of several Humvees. Fortunately, it did not detonate. A round of fire followed that, but no one was hurt.
Just when things seem to quiet down, more crazies come out of the woodwork. I think this will continue for at least another year.
I am sad to be leaving my pals at the 2nd Tank Battalion. Near-death experiences shared with others can be very bonding. They have given so much to me that I walk away from them feeling humbled and honored to have been a part of their efforts. They are brave men. Surprisingly sentimental men. Tough men. Gentlemen.
* * *
The transfer out of military life involved hours of waiting and being moved from one Marine installation to another. In each installation, I was less than 10 miles from downtown Baghdad but had no way of renting a vehicle on my own with any degree of security. After surviving so many adventures for the past few weeks, hasty choices didn't seem worthwhile.
I have arrived at the Al Safeer Hotel in downtown Baghdad today, a bombed-out fortress of a place that opened just yesterday to accommodate the hundreds of journalists pouring into the city and others exiting from weeks of being embedded with the troops.
My room overlooks the Tigris River and, on the opposite shore, one of Saddam's palaces.
Weeks of being around other people every single moment of the day has been feeding a desperate need for privacy, and the structure and routine of military life has left me wanting to reclaim my own rhythm and spontaneity.
EPILOGUE: 1st Sgt. Lew Dusett passed away on Feb. 1, 2016, at the age of 55.
© 2003 Cheryl Diaz Meyer. All Rights Reserved.
ON THE ROAD TO BAGHDAD - A sickening WVOOOOOM! accompanied by a desperate call of INCOMING!!! woke me from my battle-weary sleep.
In the fractions of a second that my poor, numb brain registered the sound of the 122mm rocket that landed 20 feet from our camp, I thought, "Where do you get off lighting those things up so close to sleeping souls?" We were lined up in our sleeping sacks, trying to erase the horror of the day's battle that left four Marines dead and another 17 injured, when the explosion awoke us.
We had traveled 31 miles yesterday on a highway controlled by Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard. Everywhere we went we were met with machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades. My writing colleague Jim Landers sank back at the end of the day mumbling something about having stepped into hell.
I had barely extricated myself from my cocoon, when another rocket flew over us. The lieutenant colonel said the counter battery was tracking the source of the rockets and would destroy them.
The men of the Bravo command amphibious assault vehicle (AAV), with whom we had made a home for the last two days, looked at each other, shaking. And then the third one hit.
I jumped out of my sack, barefoot in shorts and a T-shirt. I collected my chemical suit, gas mask, Kevlar helmet, hiking boots, glasses and backpack and ran to the AAV for shelter.
"Oh my gawd, it's a mermaid," a young lance corporal, Keith Chandler, had barely covered up his skivvies with his sleeping bag before I trampled over him and perched myself on top of an MRE box, cursing under my breath. Getting into the AAV with all my protective gear normally takes me about a minute of huffing and puffing, and Lance Cpl. Chandler watched in disbelief as I leapt forcefully into the 3-feet-high entrance, throwing equipment in all directions.
After about 30 minutes, we straggled out, shaken, ready to take our chances. I crawled back into my sack, whimpering small comforts to myself.
If it was going to happen, then it would happen, and hopefully it would be quick.
I prayed as I waited for sleep to take me away from the misery and fear. I thought, I don't care what it takes – who gets hurt or who gets killed – just, please, make them stop. And with each explosion of our artillery, I cheered in my heart because it was one step closer to making me safe.
The following morning would reveal a minibus with a man, woman and two children lying in a pool of blood; a sedan with a man in the passenger seat covered in a blanket; a man lying prostrate in front of a delivery truck; two men lying next to a car, one of whom was believed to be a three-star general in the Republican Guard; and countless others at various checkpoints.
After weeks of waiting for action, we seem to have gotten it in full with the 2nd Tank Battalion. Each day is increasingly hectic as we race toward Baghdad, blowing through town after town, only waiting to resupply ammunition and to evacuate the dead and injured.
My stomach has been weak since last night's close call. Several journalists traveling with us have quietly begun talking about leaving. We are rattled and shaken. And the increasing violence to which we bear witness is taking its toll.
For myself, I can only say that I am determined to see Baghdad, if my will permits.
Forty-five seconds. An eternity of applause. It’s as close to Marilyn Monroe as I’m ever going to get.Read More
Dear Family, Friends and Colleagues,
It’s really quite a giggle. I’ve got henna painted in floral design on my right hand extending from my inner wrist down to the tip of my middle finger. It’s still drying and crusted on my skin like leprosy. But underneath is the beautiful orange pattern, which delicate hands detailed onto mine with much precision.
Today, I spent the afternoon laughing with the young Muslim women at the Grand Mosque in Manama, Bahrain, as they painted my hand and each other’s with geometric and floral designs. The geometric designs with intricate detail are considered Indian, and the floral designs are considered Arabic.
It was a real insight, this henna-coloring girl-bonding thing. Suddenly I understood why women of Muslim faith welcome a separate existence from their male counterparts in half of their living. It was entertaining and fun to be glammed up and watch others do the same and not have to worry an iota about someone of the opposite gender staring at me. It seems that as a foreign woman I am often stared at. It’s not that there aren’t other women who roam this rather modern and open society uncovered, but I inspire some curiosity, perhaps because of my mixed heritage. There are many Filipinas here who work as guest workers and I have that in my appearance. Then again, not quite. My German-American roots on my father’s side are also mixed in me and I carry myself like an American woman who lives the unrestrained life of one who has choices and opportunity. I know that for many here, I am a conundrum.
My story of the afternoon really began yesterday evening as I shopped for an “abbaya,” the long black dress and veil that many religious women here wear for “protection.” As I shopped for a fashionable abbaya, not really knowing what fashionable is, I happened to enter a little shop in the old “souk” or market where a young woman and her mother were getting fitted for a new abbaya. The shop had many lovely choices to pick from: black abbayas with black embroidered trim, black abbayas with black embroidered trim with little shiny sequins, black abbayas with red embroidered trim, black abbayas with black fringe on the cuffs, black abbayas with swirly embroidered trim, and so on ad infinitum.
But these women were being fitted specifically for what I don’t know. So I took the opportunity to stare, since staring woman to woman seems acceptable in these parts of the world, and eventually decided to chance that they might speak English. I was looking for an abbaya, how did I pick one, I wanted one that was closed in the front, how long did it take to hem the bottom, etc. The young woman, whom I later came to know as Khadija of Bangladesh, gave me an informative speech about the meaning of the abbaya and the high points about how to find a fitting one. She later explained that she worked at the Grand Mosque as a tour guide and if I wished to visit tomorrow, I could do so from 10 am to 5 pm -- for free. I thanked her kindly as she left with her parents, doubting that I would ever see her gentle face again, but if I had time, I would certainly come by the mosque.
And as it so happened, I did have time on my hands, so I took her up on the offer. As I approached the entry she appeared from behind two other guides, and with surprise in her eyes, she greeted me warmly. I took her tour with two Germans, outfitted in my new abbaya, which many of the young women guides coohed over. How much did I pay for it, where did I get it, how did I know Khadija, and so on. At the end of the very informative tour, I was invited for refreshments since today was the day after Eid. And then I was directed to a carpeted, pillow-laden area where women congregated and were apparently painting henna on the hands and feet of guests. There I was introduced to Faiza, another Bangladeshi woman who revealed that she was “sort of” engaged to a young Bangladeshi man who was presently studying in America. She said that the last time she saw him was a couple of months ago when he visited her over the holidays.
Her parents permitted them to see each other, she explained, because they were family friends and had known each other since childhood, therefore they could not forbid it. Faiza was covered in an abbaya, a scarf, and another contraption that covered her entire face minus a slit for her eyes. Khadija explained that Muslim women could choose to wear the full-face cover if they were so beautiful that they needed extra “protection.” I wanted to know who determined whether a woman needed extra “protection” and was it just a woman being vain thinking she was so beautiful that men could not possibly control themselves in her presence. Faiza never revealed whether it was she or her parents who wanted her to wear the full face covering.
Faiza’s next customer was an Uzbek woman who worked also as a tour guide at the Grand Mosque. She was the Russian-speaking guide. Her name was Noora and she was supposed to be tending the cardamon coffee, tea and sweets table, but instead she was playing hooky and having her hands painted in henna. Whereas I got a simple floral design from my wrist to the tip of my middle finger, she was getting her entire hand painted, then the next, and finally continuing up her arms as aging Australian women tourists with bad knees waited their turn for Noora to finish.
Every time Faiza the painter would get distracted or another guide would check on the progress of Noora’s hands, Noora would send them away to check on a renegade tourist accidentally wandering into the great hall without the proper covering or she would quickly admonish Faiza to keep her eyes on the task at hand. I dubbed her “the manager.” And she took my teasing in stride as I egged her on and she commandeered all the younger Muslim women to do her bidding. Later she revealed that her husband, who was Bahraini, didn’t even like henna hand painting. But this was really for her so she didn’t care what he thought.
I left the U.S. on January 29 and arrived in Kuwait three days later. My layover was in London and, having never been to London, I decided to take the subway into the city to entertain myself during a 14-hour layover. I did the whirlwind tour, and as the day progressed the weather deteriorated until I was eating my first plate of fish n’ chips watching the sleet blow sideways outside a pub window. In the subway, each minute brought another announcement of a line that was closed, until it became my line that was closed and desperately I hopped from line to line to finally arrive at the airport among a throng of other late, bug-eyed passengers. By the time I made it to my gate, my plane was cancelled and the ticketing line was several hundred deep. Remembering a story related to me just that morning from a fellow passenger, I knew that the counter would close in two hours, not all customers would be assisted, and whoever dared to stay in line for the night would be the first ones helped the following morning.
So without much adieu I chattered happily with the passengers in line with me, and sat down on a cart with two poles supporting my rear. The line diminished as each hour passed until finally I was 20th in line at 2 am. By morning, a new line developed alongside ours and apparently several planes of people who had waited all night for take off were released from their planes, and they felt perfectly justified in cutting in front of us. A nasty scene ensued as passengers began to curse at each other, push, shove and generally try to get ahead. The Indians, Pakistanis and the Bangladeshis were definitely winning this fight. They had all the practice. The rest of us were gasping for breath trying not to faint as the pressure became increasingly impossible to bear. It was actually quite frightening. A woman nearly fainted, I was weak and nauseous and others were crying. It was a royal mess that even the policeman didn’t have the courage to straighten out.
After getting my ticket reissued, I waited all day and watched as 97% of the day’s flights were again cancelled. Since I was on standby, I was sure my chances of getting on my flight to Kuwait were close to nil. But after enduring a long wait in line, told that all standby positions were cancelled, having my luggage assigned to a different passenger, and finally told at the gate that the agent never reissued my ticket after all, they straightened it all out on the spot and I was on the flight to Kuwait. That was a good thing because after three days of no sleep and very little sleep before departing Dallas, I didn’t believe that physically I could have made it to a hotel in London. I was simply out of steam.
Seven hours later, I met up with Jim Landers, a writer from our Washington, D.C. bureau, who met me at the airport with a shuttle arranged from the desert oasis Marriott Hotel. I checked in around 10 am, showered and slept until the following morning when Jim dared to wake me to tell me that the space shuttle Columbia had disintegrated over Dallas! Not the kind of news I would want to wake up to on any given day, much less out of a moronic stupor. At that moment, after everything I had just been through, it seemed like the world was coming to an end as I slept in a delicious featherbed on the other side of the globe.
We’ve been in Bahrain about a week, and haven’t done much but dine with rich Bahrainis who seem to have adopted us during this week of Eid. Typically, this is family time like Easter is to Christians, but Bahrainis have taken Jim and I in and wined and dined us as they rabidly attack our country. We had a particularly memorable dinner with Anwar, the editor-in-chief of one of the big daily newspapers that reports the news as the government would like to hear it. He had an evil air about him as he whispered in my ear that America was bad, bad, bad, and that if he had a gun he would keeeell George Bush himself. He spent an entire evening feeding us beautiful wine and lamb extolling the sins of our government and our country.
I hardly said a word, happy to let Jim debate with this man all evening, wondering if I would spend the night puking my guts out. People in this part of the world see Americans so differently from how we see ourselves. It simply amazes me that they can blame us so wholeheartedly for everything that is wrong in this part of the world. I rarely hear people talking about their responsibility in the chaos that has long been a part of the history here. Instead they will spend hours talking about the sins of America and never acknowledge that they have done nothing to make the Middle East a more peaceful place.
We are returning to Kuwait tomorrow morning under mixed circumstances. I have proposed to my boss, Director of Photography Ken Geiger, that I should be dispatched to Baghdad to wait for the troops and report as they enter the city. The Al Rashed Hotel in Baghdad is chock full of journos waiting for the war to arrive on their doorstep. The port of entry seems to be Jordan and then a bus ride in to Baghdad.
Jim and I got second passports issued here in Bahrain so as not to antagonize the Iraqi government with our Kuwaiti visas stamped all over. The newspaper management hasn’t made a decision yet, and they are weighing heavily whether to have someone in Baghdad given the dangers. It’s a difficult decision, and despite my proposal, I am nearly sick with fear, but I feel strongly that Baghdad is the place to be for me as a photographer.
The military has announced that The Dallas Morning News will be granted several positions for embeds with the army and Marines, but I believe it will be a highly-controlled agenda and it will be difficult to make pictures of situations as they unfold. In photography, there is no retelling the story, either you’ve got the photo or you don’t.
I have been struggling with an overwhelming sense of unease since my arrival in the Middle East and it is really pervading my whole being. I have all of my body armor, my chemical protective gear and all the possible precautions including my stash of fine hot chocolate, yet I have moments where my stomach turns over in terror as I think about the possibilities of what may happen as we cover this story. It’s so unnerving, this fear. Oddly, as I live out of suitcases in the most glamorous hotels in the area, the possible conflict seems completely surreal and incongruous with my present reality. It contributes to my angst and anxiety.
As I drift off to sleep, a Pepsi runs through my veins hampering my precious rest and my mind wanders to the swirls and floral patterns of my henna-painted hands.
Love from the desert,