24 March 2005
My journey home for two weeks R&R began at two in the morning at the Queen Alia Airport in Amman. A bleary-eyed ticket agent issued me my boarding pass. A bleary-eyed customs agent handed me a receipt for my five dinar exit fee. A bleary-eyed immigration officer stamped an exit visa into my book. At the gate, sleeping children rested in the laps of sleepy women whose hijab-covered heads rested on the shoulders of tired husbands. An old man wearing a white skull cap quietly passed wooden prayer beads through his fingers. There was hardly any noise at all, save for the flicking of cigarette lighters by silent, chain-smoking men and the periodic message broadcast over the public address system reminding passengers that this was a smoke-free airport.
Hollywood stereotypes aside, Arabs are a pretty quiet people. By contrast, the American sitting in front of me on the plane was not. Bearded, grossly overweight, and wearing a ball cap that said “TX”, this gentleman was undoubtedly a government contractor taking his quarterly leave from his lucrative job in the Middle East. “Hey Earl!” he shouted to his friend ten rows behind him as he stood up into the aisle, “Could they make these seats any smaller?” Earl responded with equal volume. I have never seen a conversation carried on like this between two people in an enclosed space. Nor had I ever seen a big gold nugget ring shaped like the Lone Star state which was tightly hugging the fat man’s sausage-link finger. “Hey Earl! I don’t know which is smaller, the seats or the meals!”
We had a four hour layover at the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. As soon as I stepped out of the plane, I was officially back in the West. The erotic glossy magazines at the newsstands confirmed that. So did the public toilets. The Arab world doesn’t do toilets well, and I was happy at least to be back among a culture that respected porcelain.
While I did not buy a copy of Juggs or Black Tail, I did pick up a book called Josiah the Great, an exciting, well-written account of the exploits in Central Asia of an early 19th Century American adventurer named Josiah Harlan. Rudyard Kipling fictionalized this personage in his novel, The Man Who Would Be King. Bored with life in rural Pennsylvania, Josia Harlan moved to British-controlled India, raised a private army, and invaded Afghanistan, conquering the ancient city of Kabul. The author, Ben MacIntyre, described Harlan as “a refugee from conventional life”—a phrase which I underlined and marked with a star in the margin.
After eight-plus hours, KLM flight 0651 landed at Washington Dulles International Airport at just before 1400 EST. After clearing customs and immigration—“You’ve been to some strange places” the officer stamping my passport commented--I stepped out into the brisk, sunny air of Northern Virginia. It was my first time back in the United States since December, 2003. I picked up my rental car, turned on the radio, and hit the highway, ready to rediscover America. But, as it was a Friday afternoon, I discovered instead Beltway traffic. It took me two hours to go 20 miles around I-495. My mind was racing with “come on, lets go,” but my foot instructed the car to slow down and stop. I had forgotten all about rush hour traffic. As I looked at the pieces of human veal creeping along in their daily masochistic ritual—a ritual I’d observed for several years—I felt the strong desire to be a refugee from conventional life myself.
My destination was New York City, but the weekend traffic and a developing jet-lag forced me to take a room at the Ramada in Towson, Maryland. Just two weeks before I’d bedded down in Tikrit. Tikrit and Towson. Towson and Tikrit. The alliteration of that thought amused me. “Do you know a nice place around here I can go for dinner?” I inquired of the man at the front desk as I signed for my key. “There’s a Hooters next door,” he replied.
The next morning I got on I-95 and headed north. Thirty-five dollars worth of gas and tolls later, I reached the Lincoln Tunnel. News on the radio informed me that there was an anti-war rally going on in Central Park, part of a world-wide protest organized to coincide with the second anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq. No one seems to say “liberation” anymore. Though curious to see what was what, I did not go to Central Park. I was afraid I would get too angry and try to pick a fight with someone. The admittedly harsh, emotional notion of “What do you know, you’re not over there, your opinion doesn’t count,” consumed me.
Instead, I turned in my rental car and headed over to the apartment of an old friend and West Point classmate, who welcomed me with a brotherly hug and a glass of Maker’s Mark. We’d be going out to a party later that night, but for a couple of hours we’d sit, relax, and watch TV. During this interlude, I learned all about TiVo. With the help of this magic device, I was able to get caught up on the 15 months of programming I had missed. When we took out all of the reality shows and CSI franchises, I hadn’t missed too much.
It was great to see so many old friends that night at the Von bar on Bleecker Street. The scene was familiar. We’d gathered like this many times during the four years I worked in New York. One of the odd things about having been away for so long—I arrived in Baghdad on 16 May 2003, was home for Christmas that year, and hadn’t been back to the States since—is that I remembered my friends as they were and kept those memories in a vacuum-sealed tube. But just like me, these people had accumulated two years of experiences. People had changed jobs, gone through the deaths of relatives, had children, or broken up with their significant others. Though they looked mostly the same, they, too, were different people now. Late in the evening, an old girlfriend walked in looking better than ever. She came over and gave me a huge hug. “It’s so good to see you,” she proclaimed with a big smile on her face. My thoughts of the surreal nature of the evening evaporated and a map of heretofore uncharted possibilities started to unfold in my mind. “What’s new with you?” I asked as I handed her a glass of red wine, a look towards the future in my eye. “Well, the big news is,” she said excitedly, “I’m married!” She held up her big diamond ring—not shaped like Texas—and waved it in front my face. “Wow! Congratulations! That’s great!” I replied, as I slowly folded the map back up and tossed it on the bar.
The next day, while sitting on a number 6 train on my way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art—I was going to go see their collection of Mesopotamian artifacts--I could not shake the feeling of disconnectedness that had been growing since I’d stepped off the plane down in D.C. Sitting in that buried rumbling box packed with sad faced people in black winter coats lost in their own thoughts—the silence broken only by the occasional accusations of maternal fornication made by young men in FUBU jackets-- I thought about the life I had on the other side of the world, a life of helicopter rides over Baghdad and sunlit drives through the open expanses of the warm Jordanian desert. The idea that the adventure was quickly coming to an end and that my future was the past now in front of me made me sad. Though I still had twelve days of leave left, I was impatient to get back home to the Middle East.