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8. The other day I was going to the Green Zone. The newly assigned driver, ominously, is named Osama. He is not nearly as good a driver as Khattab, who has been promoted to field inspector. An additional problem with Osama is that he speaks no English and understands even less.
We were speeding along and eventually started to pull into line about 150 yards behind a column of some five or six Humvees. One great danger to Humvees is the threat that is posed to them from behind by anyone with a weapon who can get close enough. As a result, no one is allowed to get any closer to their rear than 150 yards. On open highways they protect themselves by having the guy in the last Humvee simply aim his machine gun at anyone who gets closer than the rear gunner feels comfortable with. In the city, of course, you can’t just have the gunner spraying machine gun fire in the middle of downtown Baghdad whenever he thinks someone is too close.
The 150-yard limit is policed in a curious way. The last Humvee in the convoy, in addition to having the rearward facing machine gunner, also carries a sign that says in English and Arabic: “You are now close enough to this vehicle that the gunner can shoot at you with intent to kill! BACK OFF!!” Also within Baghdad, an Iraqi Police SUV tails the convoy exactly 150 yards back with its hazard light flashing. The secret here if you want to remain alive beyond sunset is: “Don’t pass the SUV!!”
Yesterday, as we tailed the convoy, Osama decided it was moving at a speed not to his liking. So he pulled out of line and sped up to pass the SUV. I immediately started to say to him: “Don’t pass him, don’t pass him!!!” But, my Osama does not speak English so we continued hell-bent down the road. Very, very soon we started to noticeably cut down the distance twixt the last Humvee and me.
In a situation like that, the so-called “rules of engagement” say U.S. troops are required to fire warning shots before they engage in fire “with intent to kill.”
Newspaper reporters and editors are the world’s most accomplished Monday morning quarterbacks in the “incident” they report. In our case yesterday everything, from start to finish, happened in about five to eight seconds. We continued gaining ground on the Humvees and I was now shouting “Stop!” at Osama. But Osama had obviously never been in this situation before and didn’t know the rules, so he kept giving it the gas. He just wanted to put the slow-moving convoy behind him.
The soldier in the back of the Humvee was now waving vigorously in a gesture that could only mean “Stay away!” I could not understand why he had not fired a warning shot because we were clearly close enough so that any reasonable soldier would conclude that this guy gaining on him like crazy had hostile intent.
Then he did fire….Clearly it was aimed upward. I didn’t hear it, but I saw a puff of smoke and the muzzle flash. Osama still didn’t catch on. The soldier fired another round and, perhaps a third. Suddenly, I recalled something my father told me many decades ago. “If your accelerator ever gets stuck turn off the ignition.” So I leaned over and did exactly that. The engine died and we coasted to a halt.
When we got back to the house I had some advice for Osama through a translator.
9. Today is June 6 and I arose at the usual 6:05. As I went down the stairs and looked out the window I noticed that it seemed quite foggy outside. Since the temperature was 94 degrees, I wondered to myself what kind of wacky reversal of the laws of physics could cause fog to exist at that temperature.
When I sat down at the glass topped kitchen table I realized that what I was seeing outside was not fog but a sandstorm! Iraqi sandstorms are not out of a French Foreign Legion movie. The wind doesn’t blow 80 miles an hour as we huddle behind camels. A sandstorm in these parts takes place with only a moderately stiff breeze. The sand is not the kind you find at the beach. The “grains” are so microscopically small that they have the consistency of talcum powder or confectioner’s sugar.
The reason I realized it was a sandstorm and not a foggy day came when I sat at the table and it was absolutely covered with a thick layer of dust. Everything in the kitchen was covered in it even though the windows and door were shut. The particles are so tiny they obviously move easily through joints, seams, and other invisible points of entry. Once inside a closed room, I have no idea what causes them to be wafted everywhere and be laid down in an even coat.
When I went to the room where I work I noticed the same was true. Dust covered everything. On my desktop I could see in a sharp and crisp outline of dust, a paperclip, a pair of scissors, a pad of post-it notes and several sheets of paper. The scissors looked strange because the finger holes were so clearly outlined.
When the cleaning ladies arrived the first thing they did was to throw pails of water all over the floors (they are marble) and then mopped it up. I was told once early on, to be very careful about walking on one of these floors after a sandstorm and the cleaning ladies have arrived — it is like walking on ice. The dust forms a very slippery surface when moist.
The sandstorm also has some unfortunate side effects. First, it lowers the boom on our Internet. Our connection works by means of a laser beam fired from Al Mammoom Tower to a gadget on our roof. But the laser beam doesn’t go through the dust. Without Internet we have no phones because they are Internet-based. And, we also can’t e-mail our proposals to the U.S. government so, ultimately, we won’t get paid for stuff we don’t do.
A more serious byproduct of the storm affected Ferras, one of our surveyors. His wife had a baby girl three weeks ago and, during the night they heard the baby gasping for breath. It was the sandstorm! It was not in the forecast and since the temperature outside was over 100, and they have no A/C, the window was left open. Ferras was somehow able to construct a sort of canopy over the baby’s face and head with several wire coat hangers and some fine mesh cheesecloth he found in the house. Once he erected the device he moistened the cheesecloth so the particles of dust would adhere to the cheesecloth!
Who said Iraqis are not resourceful?
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