Adel never speaks to me in English, but he understands me when I talk to him, and he knows what I tell my interpreter, Hameed. He also knows someone told me a few months ago that Adel’s English has improved drastically over the last three years, in part because of the school in Texas the US sent him to, and also in part because of the woman he met there and reportedly married, and to whom he sends flowers on Thursdays. Adel is grateful my knowledge of this has not affected my opinion of him. We play soccer with Adel’s battalion on Fridays. Beck and I are the only two Americans who have played soccer before, and despite their years of training and unbelievable physical fitness, Green Berets have a distinct eye-foot coordination problem. During the games, the strategy on our side is to simply outrun the Iraqis, and when that fails, to employ brute physical force. We win every tackle we make. The Iraqi strategy is their reliance on their knowledge of the game, which for these men, is instinctual. They have been juggling a ball as long as they have been walking, which means they can pass with both feet, trap a ball out of the air, and make a first touch that doesn’t send the ball fifteen yards in front of them. We lose every game we play.
At first, Adel must have told his guys to take it easy on us, and the team that started was clearly made up of the older, fatter members of the unit. Hazbar, the Iraqi battalion’s elder statesman, and Adel’s second in command, made an appearance, much to the delight of the men in the battalion twenty years his junior. He was terrible, but still better than all of us. On our side, Beck and I tried to assign loose positions to people (offense, defense, goalie), but eventually we gave up and let whoever wanted to run around the field until exhaustion. We played the entire first half of our first game with thirteen players, and were still losing at halftime. Sabrina, my personnel specialist responsible for conducting background investigations of the Iraqi soldiers we live with, biometrically cataloguing them, and issuing them access badges for US installations, played offense, which essentially meant we didn’t expect her to run back past midfield ever. Once the Iraqis were up 3-0, they stopped running. They let Sabrina dribble the ball the length of the field from her starting position at midfield, straight down the middle, bouncing the ball ten to fifteen yards ahead of her as she ran behind it. When she got inside the penalty box, the Iraqi goalie ran sideways out of the net. The entire battalion chanted, “Baget malta! Baget malta!”—“My badge, my badge!”—and clapped their hands. Sabrina lined up her strike, swung her foot through, and sent the ball wide to the left, missing the goal entirely. It seemed the entire Iraqi team dropped in unison to the dirt, hands on their heads. I heard one of them say “Lean forward, open your eyes, don’t blink”—instructions for the biometric iris scanner—as he walked past her to set up for the goal kick.
Yesterday, when we played the battalion, Adel wasn’t there. We were down 9-0 before halftime. Sean, an overly excited weapons sergeant from the team we live with who made rank far too quickly, did not tolerate our humiliation well. He began running full speed into the Iraqis, whether the ball was there or not. As the coach, this Iraqi battalion’s US advisor, and only officer, I subbed him out, which only made him angrier, and caused him to run off the field back to the US compound on the other side of the Iraqi base, where, I’m told, he donned his body armor and ran another six miles. Soon after I dismissed Sean, the Iraqi center back tried to clear the ball from the back, but shanked it off the side of his foot. It bounced once in front of me, and then I took it off a chest trap and lined up on the half-volley. The ball, like it was suddenly rocket propelled, launched into the upper right corner of the goal. It was so unexpected, the entire Iraqi battalion stood frozen in place after it happened. We celebrated as though we had just qualified for the World Cup. I ran around the field zigzagging like an airplane, and then ran to the rest of my team that gathered at midfield chanting U-S-A! U-S-A! Their goalie and center back subbed themselves out, and left the dirt field. We lost the game 17-1, but it felt like we won.
Friday football games have become such a regular occurrence that Adel’s men now plan their leave to make sure they are present for them. When I go to see Adel now, the TV in his office that used to stream Al Jazeera now shows highlights from the Qatari soccer league. As I sit in his office today, I comment on the goals as they cycle through the highlights. One of the players scores on a half-volley off a bad clearance. I point to the TV and tell him that’s how I scored. “Na’am, na’am,” he says. He knows all about it from his men. He gets up from his desk and zigzags around his office, arms extended like an airplane, and laughs.
“Quwat jaweed,” I say—Air Force—shrug my shoulders, and smile.
He sits back down and pages someone from the hall. One of the boys he employs to brew and bring us chai enters the room holding a gold trophy draped in the silk scarf with the unit’s name and patch on it. The chai boy places the trophy on the desk in front of Adel, and walks to the door to leave, hands extended like an airplane.
“But we’ll never win,” I say to Adel and smile. Hameed translates, but doesn’t have to.
Adel laughs, and says as Hameed interprets, “Then it’s good it looks nice in here.”
He says on Friday, he’ll bring the trophy with him. We’ll all take a picture with it before the game. I agree. Then he moves the trophy to the other side of his desk to tell me he was selected to attend the NATO Counterterrorism School in Germany. In English, he says, “I can’t go without my advisor.”
Hameed interprets this into Arabic and looks at me. “Wait,” Hameed says, also disarmed by the language shift. I tell Adel that I will talk to the Army guy I work for and see if I am allowed to go with him. He calls for chai, and we watch some more highlights. After we finish our chai, Hameed and I get up to leave. As we walk out, I extend my hands like an airplane and hear Adel laugh as we close the door.
At the operations meetings run every night but Friday by the teams I work for, I wait patiently as they cycle through slides of the targets they are tracking, the new intelligence they have on certain leaders of known Iranian-backed militias, and plans for tonight’s operations. I jot down notes about some of the logistics, and watch with interest as their Explosive Ordinance specialist tells us about the new tactics Iraqis are using to kill Americans on the roads. Recently, they have started positioning improvised explosives on overpasses pointed down. When they detonate, they go right through the turrets and roofs of convoy vehicles, rendering all the armor and reinforced undercarriages useless. The only other Air Force person outside my team that works with this unit is their Joint Terminal Air Controller (JTAC), a Staff Sergeant in charge of calling in air strikes from the ground. He doesn’t come to most of the meetings, no one really knows where he goes, and we only see him when the teams meet for their pre-mission briefing. The last slide of the Ops and Intel meeting is usually devoted to a comical and obscene joke about their attempts to locate the JTAC. Tonight, the final slide is a picture of Ronaldo running toward his team after scoring a goal, hands extended like an airplane. Superimposed over his face is a picture of Kate Hudson’s face, apparently the closest equivalent to me they could find. These men usually don’t know what I do, and generally don’t care as long as they have bullets and batteries and paper for their giant map printer. But even they heard about the goal, and the fact that we scored—that I scored—and ended the Iraqi shutout, is news worth celebrating.
At the end of the meeting, I approach Perry, the commander of this unit, with Adel’s request. “He says he can’t go to the NATO school without his advisor,” I say.
“Who’s his advisor?” Perry asks.
“I am,” I say. He frequently forgets I am this battalion’s advisor because as an aircraft maintenance officer serving here as a logistician embedded with two-dozen Green Berets, I am the least qualified person for this job.
“Ok,” Perry says, and gives me the name of the person at the central task force to work with on my temporary duty assignment orders to Germany. “By the way,” he says as I go to leave, “nice work on the goal. Bet it eats them that a girl ended their shutout streak.” He grabs a handful of almonds, leans back in his desk chair, and laughs.
If you go in Gate Number Two of the Victory Base Complex and turn right, eventually you’ll end up at Camp Liberty or Camp Victory. I still don’t know the difference, except that one of them serves decent barbeque on Wednesdays. Go left inside Gate Number Two, and eventually you find the Special Forces compound where some of the people I work for live, and the blank gate with quiet, sleepy Ugandans who are supposed to write down the letter on the keys we give them to pass, but never do. Instead, they tip their floppy brimmed hats and wait for their turn to take the bus to the American-run dining hall for all they can eat steak and lobster on Mondays.
I’ve tried for months to work with VBC’s base defense operations center to make the process of our Iraqis coming through Gate Number Two more fluid. They all, thanks to Sabrina, have access badges. Their vehicles are registered with the base. They announce their movement through Gate Number Two hours in advance. Still, there are problems, particularly when they come back with detainees. Last night, when they came through Gate Number Two with a detainee—an enormously large woman who we later learn was hiding thumb drives in her fat rolls—one of the commandos from the battalion’s small commando company found an M9 pistol near the clearing barrel at the gate. Thinking it belonged to someone in the convoy, he picked it up. When the convoy returned to our base here at the end of the mission and handed off the obese detainee to the interrogation cell (she almost crushed one of the guards dismounting the guntruck in handcuffs), they did a weapon inventory. None of them lost a weapon. They then conducted an inventory by serial number for all the weapons in the Brigade, some 2,000 in all. They finished right before the sun came up, and were not missing an M9 pistol.
Adel calls me early, and Hameed and I go to meet him. When we get to his office, we find the pistol, cleared, safe, sitting on his desk next to the trophy. He explains what happened, how they found it near Gate Number Two, how they checked all the weapons in the Brigade, and it’s not theirs. He tells me he thinks it belongs to an American, maybe one of the guards who stands at Gate Number Two and demands to see the colorful plastic ID cards Sabrina issues. I take down the serial number and tell him I can find out. He calls for chai, and apologizes for meeting with me so early. It is 8:30 am. While we sip chai, we watch the highlights from yesterday’s Champions League games. Ronaldo runs across the screen and I think of Kate Hudson.
When I get back to my office, I call the base defense operations center and ask if anyone has reported a lost weapon. In fact, one of the guards at the gate did report his weapon missing after his shift. I ask for them to verify the serial number. The man on the phone refuses, citing security concerns. “We will send someone to get the weapon,” he says.
“You will not,” I say. We are guarded about who we let on to this base, in part because it is an Iraqi base. But we are also leery because some of the things necessary for successful special operations are not viewed favorably by the regular Army. We have had the Office of Special Investigation, Army Criminal Investigation Division, and FBI attempt to enter the base without authorization. All of them were turned away by the guy with a machine gun at the first gate. Entry onto our compound is sometimes viewed as a badge of honor for people who don’t live here. Most people who get on tell people it is because they had business to conduct with the Special Forces. Most of those people are lying. We do our business here. If it involves others, we go to them, which is what I tell the man on the phone. I also tell him that it was an Iraqi who found the lost weapon, so the Iraqi would be delivering it.
“Iraqis aren’t allowed to have weapons on our post,” the man says.
“He will be unarmed, except for the empty weapon you lost,” I say.
“We will detain him if you aren’t with him,” he says.
“You realize that doesn’t make sense, don’t you?” I ask.
“You can drop it off between 1600 and 1700, accompanying the Iraqi, or don’t come at all,” he says.
“If we don’t come at all,” I say, “you still have a lost weapon.”
He hangs up the phone. Adel calls Hameed to ask what he can do to return the lost weapon to the Americans. Hameed tells him that we need to return it between 1600 and 1700, and that I must go with him. He says that is fine, but that he will need to run a few errands afterwards. He will meet me outside the large steel door of our US area at 1500 and we can drive together. I agree. Hameed tells me he has something to do then and can’t go with us. “What do you have to do?” I ask him.
“You know,” he says and shrugs. We work together from 9 am until about 1 pm, and then again from around 10 pm until two or three in the morning, so it seems reasonable for him to do things the other times, even though I don’t actually know what those things are. Adel speaks enough English so that we can manage, and I don’t mind silence. Later, I will find out that one of the explicit guidelines set forth by the US commander in Iraq is that one can never be alone with an Iraqi. I am supposed to take at least two other US service members with me (I would only need one were I man). But I also know that if I bring two other people with me, it will look like I don’t trust Adel. And while I don’t entirely, breaching the trust we do have will do more than cancel Friday football games. I tell Schwab, my Lieutenant, I’m going with Adel. He says ok, and reaffirms that he will take over if I am kidnapped or killed, and asks if he will get promoted to captain if that happens.
Adel arrives on time, and with the weapon, which he hands me. I wave at Schwab, who closes the door behind us, and I get into Adel’s car and we drive. We are headed to the place with the good barbeque on Wednesdays, which I have only been to a few times. Adel turns on the radio as we drive. We tune into the American Forces Network station. Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” comes on and Adel turns up the volume. I nod my head along with the song and look out the window at the lowering Iraqi sun. I start to hear Adel singing along faintly. As the song builds, he gets more confident and sings louder. I start singing with him. He smiles and turns up the volume. He looks at me, rolls down the windows, and we both belt out the lyrics.
We sway back and forth in his gold Mitsubishi Pajero, alternating the lyrics at the end. As the song tapers off, we laugh and smile and forget for a minute that I am part of a force occupying his country, that he is a member of an elite unit charged with eliminating the threats within his own people, and that we are delivering a lost weapon to people who have been in charge of the occupation for eight years and manage it by hanging up on people trying to help them.
Adel turns down the radio, a commercial comes on, and he changes the station to one of the Arabic pop stations, Hayati FM. Arabic pop is a strange genre. Some of the songs sound American, except for the harshness of the Arabic language and the unfamiliar rhymes. Some songs are laced with the stringed rhythms you would expect a belly dancer to replicate with her hips and jingled skirt. I’ve learned that Nancy and Fares Karam, both Lebanese, are chart toppers right now. I recognize none of Nancy’s songs, but I do know she is the only female spokesperson for Coca-Cola in the Middle East. Fares Karam’s music is not quite as poppy as Nancy’s, and employs more of the traditional sounds of Lebanon. I received his CD, Elhamdullah, meaning praise or thanks be to Allah, as a gift. It, along with knowledge of Adel’s wife in Texas, are what my first interpreter left me with when I dropped him off at the Baghdad International Airport terminal one Thursday morning back in March. The music is catchy, and I find myself learning the sounds of the words and trying to interpret the strings with gyrations of my hips, particularly of the CD’s title track, “Elhamdullah.”
I point to where Adel needs to turn to cross the river and he signals the change of course. We pass an American convoy and every soldier sitting near a window stares as us as we drive by, Adel with one hand on the wheel, one hand held over his head trying to block the drooping sun. I sit in the passenger seat with an empty, lost pistol on my lap and look out the side window away from the sun. I point to the building we need to park in front of, and Adel turns in, parks, and shuts off the car. We get out and walk up to a heavily barricaded door. I tuck my shirt over my own pistol, hip-holstered, loaded, and mostly out of sight. Adel brushes the front of his uniform off. I lock the slide of the empty pistol to the rear. A small slit in the steel door opens and I tell a pair of eyes I am here to speak with the O-5, their commander, a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army The slit closes, the door opens, and we are escorted in, tracked by unarmed soldiers panicking in the midst of a real live Iraqi. They don’t know we sang along to Madonna on the way over. They don’t know that Adel leads what is very likely the only unit in Iraq that would have actually returned a found American weapon. They don’t know about his English or his wife in San Antonio.
When we arrive at the O-5’s office, he motions us in and proceeds to read me my rights. Normally, this would alarm me. But I learned months ago that my best chance of survival here is to ignore the normal responses to events I have developed elsewhere in my adult life. Adel stands behind me and to my left, hands folded in front of him, and stares at the ground. His posture is that of a servant awaiting reproach. “Please state how you came upon the stolen weapon,” the O-5 says.
“Please verify the serial number of the lost weapon,” I say back.
He works me over with his eyes. “Are you armed, Captain?” he asks.
“Please verify the serial number of the missing weapon,” I say back. Perry tried to warn me about the regular Army. They are so large, and so broken by eight years of trying to occupy, destroy, and then rebuild a country that very often they confuse the order of the natural world. Perry told me not to trust them farther than I could throw them, and because of the good barbeque on Wednesdays, that is not far.
“Please state how you came upon the stolen weapon,” the O-5 says again.
“Please verify the serial number of the lost weapon,” I say.
“Goddamnit, Captain! You know damn well they stole it from us. Why the hell did you bring him?” He points to Adel, who, fully understanding the words the O-5 yells, remains unmoved.
“His men found the lost weapon,” I say. “After conducting a brigade-wide inventory of their own weapons, they determined it was not theirs. At which point, they began to actively seek its owner. Your own unit could learn from their diligent accountability practice,” I say.
The O-5 moves six feet to his left to find a desk to crush with both of his fists. Tobacco leaks slowly out of the right side of his mouth. Spit flies forward as he speaks to me. “What the fuck!” he says. “What the fuck do you know about weapon accountability? Do you fucking count airplanes to make sure you didn’t lose any? Do you even fucking know where the serial number is on an M9? Have you ever even fucking fired one? I’m telling you these same haji bastards stole our goddamn pistol, and you’re here telling me how to fucking count? Who’s your fucking supervisor?”
“Which one?” I ask. It seems like a legitimate question. I work for any one of eight people, so even I don’t entirely know how I might answer that.
“What the fuck!” he says again and smashes the desk. “You don’t even know? I bet you work for that fuck-tard who told me I would be detained at the gate if I tried to come there myself.”
“Perry?” I ask.
“Fuck!” he says and grabs the edge of the desk and wipes the stream of dip from his face. He moves a piece of paper and reads me the six-digit number. I check it against the pistol in my hand, walk forward, and place it on the desk. I turn around to face Adel. “Is it over?” he asks me in English.
“Na’am, saydie. Yallah,” I say, and we walk away from the trembling O-5. As we make our way down the hall, I hear him behind me yell, “Motherfucking Air Force cunt waltzes in here with some haji motherfucker and tells me how to fucking count.”
We get back in Adel’s car as the sun sets. Before he turns it on, he looks at me and says, “Dinner? I have… idea.”
He starts the car and we drive away from the O-5, the defense operations center, and the regular Army. Adel reaches into the back seat and hands me a dishdasha and scarf. He is taking me to dinner in Baghdad, and while I have on tan boots, this will at least make me less obvious. I put the dishdasha over my uniform, smooth it out, and wrap my head while he drives. The restaurant we go to has a back entrance, which he, still in uniform, uses and leads me upstairs to the roof. He is friends with the waiter, who brings us a pot of chai, samoon, and hummus. Adel orders kebobs for us. As we eat, we don’t talk. Instead, we look past each other into the lights of Baghdad. Behind him are some high rises that stretch along the river. If I didn’t know better, it could be San Antonio.
We get another pot of chai, and Adel tries to pay, but the waiter wants only a photo with me, which he takes, and then leaves our table, hands extended behind him like an airplane. Adel chuckles as we walk down the stairs to his car. Even the waiter knows.
As we drive back, Adel turns the radio up enough to cut the silence. We drive with the windows open once we are back on a road without many cars. I take off the dishdasha and scarf, fold them, and set them on the back seat. Just before we make the turn to head for the front of our base, “Elhamdullah” comes on the radio.
“I love this song!” I say and turn it up. I often think I should look up or ask Hameed to translate the words. I practice the sounds to them just in case I am somewhere where it might be useful to be able to sound like I can speak one stanza of Arabic. So I sing along.
O’llo allah elhamdullah Wel se-ha mneeha Elhamdullah Madam el se-ha mneeha Hmoomak khn dahrak zee-ha Ah-san ma trooh fdee-ha O’llo allah elhamdullah Wel se-ha mneeha Elhamdullah…
Adel laughs and turns up the radio louder. He sings the next verse. I sing what I think are the right sounds for the next verse, and we alternate this way until the song is over. He turns down the radio. “You are good,” he says. “But you should practice this verse.”
Then he recites:
Rjh’le mbarha law feek wa’efli borka el jaye Bkafee tehlam ya shreek haldenye elha nhaye O’llo allah elhamdullah Wel se-ha mneeha Elhamdullah
I try it, but stumble over the first sound. We try again and I make it through the first line. We do the second. We practice twice more as the car pulls up in front of the US part of the Iraqi base. He parks the car and gets out.
“I’m sorry that guy was so horrible,” I say.
Adel laughs and shrugs. “Shukran, Jameela,” he says—thanks Beautiful (the name the Iraqis have given me)—and gives me a hug.
“Ma’a salama, sadiki,” I say—goodbye, my friend—and I walk through the gate. Hameed and Schwab are sitting on the patio waiting for me. Disappointed he won’t be promoted, Schwab tells me he’s glad I’m back and leaves.
“Hameed,” I say before he goes too. “What does ‘rjh’le mbarha law feek wa’efli borka el jaye, bkafee tehlam ya shreek haldenye elha nhaye’ mean?”
“Oh, from the song,” he says. “It means something like ‘bring back yesterday and stop tomorrow from coming; enough dreaming my friend, this world has an end.’”