After a long flight there was little else to greet me but desert air, dry and warm despite the close approach of midnight. The sand, fine like sugar, danced about in the wind like malevolent sprites. Those sprites seek your eyes, your ears, your tongue through tightly pursed lips. I waited for my bags, defenseless against them.
I am in Kuwait, where everyone is either coming or going. We all have the same story, the only difference is the storyteller. Few and far between are the ones who have never been in theater, so nowadays even the storytellers are the same, the jaded and weary.
This was my first time in Iraq and I took in all the stories. Soldiers here for their third time, their fifth time, just time that they have to pass until their next time. “Never again,” they tell me. And soldiers-turned-contractors, collared shirts, lanyards, desert tan hats featuring a company logo… guys like me. “I’m staying till they turn out the lights,” they tell me.
All of us speak of home, long for it. We ask each other where we hail from. We ask “how long you been here?” and “when are you leaving?”. Time is what we’re all watching intently while trying not to think about it intensely. Time does not move here.
But this is old land. It saw the birth of civilization. What is our longing, our sense of lost time to it?
Iraq has it’s own story. Sometimes things repeat, sometimes someone comes and adds more to it or leaves and takes stories away. It is where Nimrod thought to raise a tower to Heaven and was struck down. It is where Saddam built an opulent palace he named “Victory Over America”,which we put a cruise missile through in the beginning of the war. Soldiers and contractors get guided tours through it now, courtesy of the Camp Slayer mayor cell, where we look at the dusty, broken ruins and imagine what it could have looked like.
Walled city-states line the Tigris and Euphrates. How is the forward operating base not like ancient Sumeria? Only these city-states and all the facilities inside are guarded by Ugandan security teams. A Ugandan guard makes five hundred dollars a month. It is good money for them, not great but enough to make it worth their while to come here so they have.
One contractor was taking photographs of views from the guard towers. He had to convince the Ugandan guard, but they finally agreed and he snapped shots of them. Once developed, he brought them the pictures, much to their joy. Word of him spread, and soon all the Ugandan guards from all over base were asking to get their pictures taken. At this time they were not allowed electronic devices and had no way of showing their families how they were doing.
They guard the bazaar, where Turks and Kurds and Iraqis sell things like offbrand cigarettes and dvds and hookahs and bellydancer outfits and useless worthless Saddam stamped dinar. They have come because every base is a land of opportunity, inherent in idle hands and captive audiences. It is the American dream in the heart of Iraq, right there on every FOB.
A day ago I sat with a soldier who couldn’t wait to go home, a guy sick and tired of being stuck in time. I thought about all the times I was bored back in the States, cursing my lack of fortune for not having something to do. Then I entertained the notion of taking a plastic spoon from the dining facility and digging my way to a buried city, the archaeological find of the new millennium . I thought of Abram, who left this place, changed his name, and took his stories with him.
And I agreed with the soldier. I also couldn’t wait to go home.