Jill Carroll's Story, Part 6: Reciting Koranic Verses
Um Ali -- the wife of Abu Ali, my stubble-bearded captor -- was my constant companion during the first three weeks of captivity. She was about 25, very pretty with big eyes. Wherever I was moved, she came, too, along with some of her children. At first, I thought she might be an ally or at least sympathetic. She wasn't.
One night -- one of the first nights in a new house in Abu Ghraib -- Um Ali and I had lain down on the thin mattresses that served as beds by night and seats by day. I had just taken off my head scarf when suddenly a guard rattled the key violently in the lock and burst into the room, flipping on the light.
In a frenzy, using very basic English, he ordered me up. I leapt up, my hands shaking so much I couldn't get my head scarf repinned.
The guard started wrapping a red-and-white-checked kaffiyeh around my mouth and head, violently and tightly. I opened my eyes wide in terror, silently pleading for help to Um Ali, who was standing next to me.
Her gaze returned no sympathy. The guard whispered orders to her in Arabic that I couldn't understand.
"Hurry, hurry, quickly, quickly," the guard hissed angrily in Arabic.
The kaffiyeh was wrapped so hard that the dry fabric was cutting into my mouth.
"They're going to haul me out and shoot me in the head," I thought in panic.
He was so angry. His hatred was obvious from the violence with which he wrapped the kaffiyeh around my head. He didn't know me, but I was an American, a symbol.
Um Ali had my glasses. As they moved me to a chair in the hall, I heard a "click, click." Terrified, I thought it was a gun being cocked.
"If an American soldier comes here you don't speak," he said.
That was the reason for the frenzy! He thought there were soldiers nearby. He then demanded that I recite the Koran.
"I just have to live through this. I just have to live through this," I thought, sitting, head bowed, blind, and breathing with difficulty. I was terrified.
After about 20 minutes it appeared no soldiers were coming. He led me back into the room and barked a command to sleep.
There were no whispered words of comfort or explanation from Um Ali.
In my early days of captivity, at one of the first houses I'd been held, an elderly woman who'd been visiting looked sadly at me and told me that inshallah -- "God willing" -- I would go home soon.
Then the visitor turned to Um Ali and sighed that my captivity was thuloum, or an injustice.
"This is not thuloum," Um Ali snapped back.
My female companion/jailer/suicide-bomber-wannabe grew more irritated and despondent as the days wore on. Um Ali was stuck with me in a dim little room.
Then one evening she bounded in with a grin. She was delighted by the news reports that thousands of homes in California had been destroyed by forest fires.
"This is justice" wrought by God, she said, "because the soldiers destroy our houses."
* * *
Part of Um Ali's growing hardness toward me came as I tried to let her know that, despite the many hours of reciting the Koran with her, I didn't plan to convert to Islam.
In the beginning I was an eager student, as I saw how much it pleased them whenever I showed an interest in learning. But I soon realized I had made a dangerous mistake.
The more I let my captors teach me, the more they expected me to convert. After a few weeks, the question was always, "Why haven't you come to Islam yet?"
I tried to put the brakes on delicately, afraid of what they might do if they thought I was rejecting Islam. How could I tell them that adopting a new religion and code for living wasn't possible when I was held captive, racked with despair, and in fear daily for my life?
One afternoon, when I was exhausted from listening to Um Ali repeat verses of the Koran over and over so I could memorize them, I said, "I don't understand the Arabic in the Koran, and so I can't understand what it really means."
"We'll bring you an English Koran," said Abu Ali, who had overheard me. "You want this?"
They were always insisting that they didn't want to pressure me into converting, while at the same time asking me why I hadn't converted yet.
"Oh, sure," I said.
Abu Ali whipped out his cellphone, and made a call. "You have a Koran in English?" he said. "Quickly, quickly, bring it."
He sounded almost frantic as he gave the person on the other end of the line directions about where to meet him.
After about 20 minutes he returned, bearing a small, green Koran. Emblazoned in gold on the cover was "Le Qur'an." It was a French translation -- not an English one.
Later, I tried telling Um Ali, gently, that I probably wasn't going to convert after all.
She said she would be angry if I didn't convert, given the time she had spent teaching me.
"We are afraid for you and don't want you to go to hell," she said. "We are afraid that we'll see you [on Judgment Day] and you'll say, 'Why didn't you save me?' "
* * *
In the early days, Mary Beth Carroll did Sudoku puzzles or read cards sent by well-wishers before she went to bed. A week and a half after the abduction, Jill's mother decided to attend a Sunday Mass at which Alan Enwiya was going to be memorialized. She had been invited to a Chicago-area Assyrian Christian church by some of his relatives. It turned out to be a cathartic trip.
Mary Beth and her companions arrived at the church on time -- but it was almost empty. As the Mass began, it filled up, pew by pew. By the end of the emotional three-hour service it was jammed with parishioners who prayed for Alan and prayed for Jill, as Mary Beth sobbed into her handkerchief. She knew Jill would want her to be there. It made her feel closer to her absent daughter. And it was the first time she'd cried since the whole ordeal began.
The strain was also evident at the Monitor.
While the public support was heartening, Jill's emergence as an iconic figure -- a smart, pretty, and idealistic American caught in the maelstrom of Iraq -- heightened the pressure in Boston and Baghdad. After all, terrorists behead Western icons.
While the stress was nothing like what the Carrolls faced, Team Jill and the Baghdad Boys (staff writers Scott Peterson and Dan Murphy) felt compelled to exhaustively pursue every lead, no matter how thin. And it was taking a toll. At one point, a worried British security adviser told editors in Boston that Murphy and Peterson "go to bed at 3 a.m. every night, after plotting the next day's strategy, and wake up expecting this will be the day Jill is found. That's unrealistic, and they can't keep this up."
Through most of the time Jill was in captivity, a single 8-by-11-inch color photo of her in a hijab hung near the door of the building that houses the Monitor's Washington bureau. It had been placed there as a backdrop to a press conference by David Cook, D.C. bureau chief and the paper's public face through the crisis.
The avuncular Mr. Cook has three sons not much younger than Jill. He passed that photo, as it grew more dog-eared and tattered, every day.
"You'd come in the door and see her picture and think, 'Have I done everything I could today to help get her out?' "
* * *
I thought about escape from the beginning and made several elaborate plans. At one of the first places I was held, there was a small window in the bathroom, about six feet up. If I reached up, I could peek out, just a little bit.
I looked out two or three times. Each time, I would do it a little bit longer. I saw a field of tall grass that stretched for about half a kilometer. Behind that was a row of tall palm trees running roughly east, toward Abu Ghraib. I'd overhead them talking about the prison. And the prison meant a bazillion US marines.
But I'd been too brazen. After several days, a guard came in after breakfast and said, "A man told me yesterday you were looking out the bathroom window.
"You know, I have a very dark place under the ground. It's cold, with a very small door," he said, repeating a warning I'd been given my first night in captivity. "There's no light. I have this place."
They hammered a tarp across both the bathroom and bedroom windows. The loss of sunlight was devastating. It may not seem like much, but it was hugely demoralizing.
They watched me all the time. Even when it seemed I was alone, there were men with guns just across the hall. I was moved often. I wasn't sure which direction to run even if I got out. Escape looked impossible. All the things I had imagined about the future -- marriage, children -- they were just gone. They were just gone, and not going to happen.
* * *
Murphy and Peterson weren't investigators in the law-enforcement sense. They never visited the scene of the kidnapping, as that Baghdad neighborhood was now too dangerous. (Neither did the FBI investigators, who were not allowed to leave the safety of the US-controlled Green Zone without an armed military escort.)
But for almost three months, the two reporters made finding Jill their primary job.
In a way, they became scholars of kidnapping. Dan created a database and drew diagrams of which groups had claimed responsibility for holding which hostages and when, to look for connections. They strategized with the British security firm, the Iraqi police, and the US Embassy's Hostage Working Group in the Green Zone. They were told aspects of the FBI and US military efforts, but never given the full picture. So, they sifted through cases that might be analogous to Jill's, to see who had been released and who hadn't. They looked for things that people on the outside had done that might have helped.
In one instance, the friends of a kidnapped Australian put up posters in the neighborhood where the crime had occurred, pleading for his safety. Murphy and Peterson decided to take that idea and supersize it. They mapped out a three-stage media plan, starting with advertisements in newspapers, then moving to radio news and television public service announcements (PSAs).
Their theme was "Jill Carroll loves Iraq and loves Iraqis. She needs your help. Please help free Jill Carroll."
Each step built on the previous one. The TV spots -- produced with the invaluable help of CNN Baghdad staffers -- used the voices of Iraqis themselves ("Oh, she was like a sister to me") with pictures of Jill in her hijab, quotes from Mary Beth, and, in one, 30 seconds of the Sunni politician Adnan al-Dulaimi calling for her release.
And Iraqi television news directors were generous with donated time.
The point was to get people who might know something to come forward with information. But the Monitor Baghdad Boys knew they were walking a thin line. They wanted to keep Jill in Iraqi minds, as a sympathetic character -- making it harder for her captors to kill her. But they didn't want to be too loud or make her too hot a property. That might raise any ransom demand through the roof. Or, worse, it might cause her kidnappers to believe that they needed to get rid of her, fast -- and that death was their best option.
- P. G.
* * *
One day, Ink Eyes, my chief captor, arrived for a chat. He sat just outside the doorway, out of my field of vision. I leaned against the wall, knees up, head down. I was afraid to even move.
He started by telling me about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian who was the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. He called Zarqawi his "good friend."
"He's such a good man.... If you met him, you would like him so much," Abu Nour said warmly.
But Zarqawi wasn't the head of the mujahideen any more, Abu Nour told me, he was simply one member of something new: the Mejlis Shura Mujahideen Fil Iraq.
Roughly translated, this was "Mujahideen Shura Council in Iraq."
The Americans were constantly saying that the mujahideen in Iraq were led by foreigners, he said. So, the Iraqi insurgents went to Zarqawi and insisted that an Iraqi be put in charge.
Zarqawi agreed, the story went. An Iraqi named Abdullah Rashid was the new head of the council.
"You don't know who is Abdullah Rashid?" said Ink Eyes.
No, I indicated, I didn't.
"I am Abdullah Rashid!" he said.
I sat there in absolute panic. I couldn't even move. This man was telling me he was friends with Zarqawi -- someone who personally beheaded hostages! And this guy was Zarqawi's boss? What did this mean?
But as I saw in coming weeks, Zarqawi remained the insurgents' hero, and the most influential member of their council, whatever Nour/Rashid's position. And it seemed to me, based on snatches of conversations, that two cell leaders under him -- Abu Rasha and Abu Ahmed -- might also be on the council.
At various times, I heard my captors discussing changes in their plans because of directives from the council and Zarqawi, including one in Arabic I only partially understood: something about how my case should be resolved "without money and without killing."
But that night -- with the nature of those who held me spelled out for the first time -- I lay on my bed motionless in the dark.
"Come, come pray," I heard Ink Eyes, aka Abu Nour, aka Abdullah Rashid, say in the next room.
Someone else recited the call to prayer. They must all be in there, gathered together.
"Allahu Akbar," the mujahideen said.
I couldn't see them, but I knew the identical motions every Sunni Muslim in the world performs in prayer. Now they were standing shoulder to shoulder, hands raised near their faces, palms out.
The wall was like paper. Only a tissue seemed to stand between their devotions to God and me.
"Allahu Akbar," they said, sighing and quietly grunting as they kneeled on the ground.
"Allahu Akbar," they repeated, as they rose from prostration. "Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar," they said, with every movement.
I listened, afraid to breathe. I had to cough, but I suppressed it. I thought, "If I cough during their prayer, maybe they'll kill me."
I lay on my back, hands clasped across my stomach. Eventually I dozed off.
Next morning, I woke up in the same position.
That's the way I woke up every morning in that house -- frozen in the position I'd assumed after crawling into bed. I was too afraid to move, even in my sleep.
Next part: False hopes.