A few days after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, Ann Prendergast left the hospital after a miscarriage. She slipped over the border from Amman, Jordan and after a tough and often terrifying journey across the western Iraqi desert ended up at the Hotel Palestine. Her bed was last slept in by a journalist who days earlier had been killed by U.S. troops. The city was on fire, almost post-apocalyptic, as looters continued their sweep.
For two days she sat in her room, and replayed her final night with Alexander, her senior attaché husband, in the bedroom of their apartment in Amman. That night Alexander had rubbed her belly with rose oil and told her nothing he had believed about America was true, and that he wanted to resign from the State Department and for them to immediately emigrate to Iceland in time for their daughter’s birth, so that they might both be reborn into innocence with their baby. That night he also took a midnight bath with a stack of memoranda, a bottle of single malt scotch given to him by Donald Rumsfeld, several dozen Xanax, a bootleg tape he made of the Grateful Dead in Philadelphia in 1981, and in the morning she found him, the only lover she had ever known, his angry blue face in a plastic bag almost hidden by floating papers.
If you asked my friend Ann, as I did in a series of interviews, why she went into Baghdad when Alexander killed himself, she said a “stranger” took her over. She didn’t go thinking of getting a correspondent’s job, but just acted, on some “inexplicable but overwhelming” prompting that spoke to her in the midst of her double loss. I had known Ann for ten years, but didn’t recognize her when I saw her in New York one day a few years after this was over. Her face was so different in a way I can’t explain; it took me fifteen minutes to place her. She was so furious she was almost unhinged. She asked me to try and tell this story as fiction, as no one wanted it when she tried to sell it as non-fiction, and she was busy with her political work trying to help other Iraqi allies we left behind after promising citizenship. Ann also wanted to protect Leyla and Haddiya, so names have been changed, as are some of the identifying details.
On her second night in Baghdad, Ann finally left her room and climbed to the roof of the Palestine Hotel and found it a circus of journalists and tented media equipment, as well as a steady stream of talking heads: former political exiles, tribal sheiks, ex-Iraqi army officers. There were nightly battles between U.S. troops and Iraqi resistance fighters. When the sun went down, the white phosphorous flares went up, anonymous machine guns pocked in the dark, and explosions drummed off distant buildings. For the next week, Ann stood at the edge of the hotel roof every night in khaki cargo pants and a long sleeve t-shirt and observed the war as if it was on CNN. She had the terrifying sense that she wasn’t even there, at the Palestine Hotel, and that it was some stranger hidden within her, some previously unknown Ann Prendergast, who had torn out the IV, run out of the Navy hospital, emptied her bank account and hired a driver to take her to Bagdad.
One night there was a quick silence all over the city. And then the power went out in the Hotel Palestine, and before the generator kicked in, a shadow placed a plastic cup in her hand filled with vodka. She turned and drank it down as she looked over the dark city. Surprisingly gentle lips kissed the top of her spine. When the lights came back on the roof, and machine gun fire crackled the silence, she turned and looked down at the empty red cup. She held it up and sniffed the vodka, and gazed at the reporters. No one looked at her. The next morning, Ann awoke at dawn and grabbed a satellite phone she found left in the lobby, as well as some MREs, and that night, after inviting the monk-balding Angus Smith, a cameraman who also happened to be from her hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, to her room, he promised if he could just hold her every night, he’d get her a freelance contract with CBS News Radio. Few asked any questions right away about her nonexistent journalistic background, and when one did, she replied in her best wife-of-a-senior-diplomat-southern-girl voice, “Hong Kong…Calcutta, Kabul, why do you ask?” These were all places she had lived with Alexander as a diplomat’s wife over fifteen years.
Two days later Ann had a contract from CBS Radio news, and as she climbed the stairs to the roof of the Hotel Palestine, she passed a small and thin Iraqi woman in a long light blue dress carrying a baby who could not have been more than six months old. A baby girl: widely spaced urgent brown eyes, a crop of soft black curls, dimpled arms wrapped tightly around her mother’s neck. Ann smiled and waited as they passed and then followed them, mesmerized as the baby processed the chaos around her on the roof while the woman asked one journalist after another if they needed an interpreter. They looked at her like she was insane when she said with finality that as there was no one else in this world to care for her baby, wherever she went to report, her baby would come with her.
When it looked like the Iraqi mother was heading back down the stairs from the roof after finding no takers for her services, Ann ran over to ask if she could help. “I hope so,” the mother replied with a tired smile. She told Ann in rapid, broken English that her name was Leyla, that her baby’s name was Haddiyah, which means "gift" in Arabic, that she had been a teacher and a translator before the war, and that she wanted to work with a foreign journalist. She also said that her husband Malik, a “very good looking” doctor, had suffered a nervous breakdown during the Shock and Awe American bombing campaign of Baghdad and that she now needed to be both breadwinner and caregiver for her husband and daughter. Her Shiite family had disowned her when she married Malik, as he was Sunni, so she was alone in Baghdad. Leyla said that she had no choice but to bring her baby Haddiyah everywhere she went, and that with the help of the neighbors, her husband was strapped with ropes to his bed when she left the apartment, so that “he would not hurt himself or a stranger’.
Ann knew she needed someone she could trust to be her ears and voice if she was going to be a reporter for CBS radio. And Leyla was clearly not only well educated (she talked as if she was their last defender of Langston Hughes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, James Baldwin and Paul Robeson) but it turned out she had stellar credentials: she had worked as an interpreter for the British Council in Jordan before the war. She was also direct: she said she hated her own people for their religious madness, hated her own parents for their obsession with money, and deeply believed nothing but good would come from the Americans coming to Iraq. And she clearly had the guts to continue working, even with an infant, in one of the most dangerous places in the world. Ann hired her on the spot. Leyla had been making fifty dollars a month before the war, Ann offered her five hundred. They joked that they were the only wartime news team in history with a baby.
Leyla became Ann’s lifeline as a reporter. Every morning they met in the hotel lobby, and Ann would scoop plump (her mother said she used to be fatter before the war) Haddiyah into her arms and cuddled her on her lap as Leyla opened her notebooks and told her about the gossip from the Iraqi street. Ann had never met anyone in her life as unapologetically curious or as holistic in her observations as Leyla, who wondered about the inflow of Iranian cigarettes as a signal of the growing influence of Iran with the Shiite insurgents, or how the decreasing artistry and increasing crudity in the graffiti was a sign of the validity of rumors of coming suicide bombings against the Americans. She also scoured the Arabic language newspapers and broadcasts and chased down tips from women on the street both Shiite and Sunni, from beggars and prostitutes to former professors or wives of the endlessly morphing political and business establishment. She knew no fear of talking to men, either: with Haddiyah in her arms she spoke to politicians and policemen, insurgents and even infidels, such as American soldiers. And some of her best tips came from children, especially girls stuck twenty-four hours a day week after week in their apartments who kept a cat’s eye on the street from the edge of heavy curtains.
The two set out daily with baby Haddiyah, a notepad, and a tape recorder to do “man on the street” interviews. Iraqis had begun swarming Firdus Square to complain about the lack of basic necessities and law and order. At first people were thrilled to see the baby, and were only too happy to share their hopes.Within a short time, though the Iraqi street became increasingly anti-American and more dangerous; people felt the U.S. wasn’t doing anything to help them, and that the American troops were being too heavy handed in their tactics. Marines set up checkpoints around the hotel zone of Baghdad. The three reported daily, and once Ann got a handle on the techniques of putting together a radio report, her editors at CBS news professed to be very pleased with the stories she and Leyla were filing.
By the spring of 2004, the situation in Iraq reached a crisis point. U.S. troops were fighting Shiite militias in the south and Sunni insurgents in the west. American casualties soared, and the country’s infrastructure disintegrated. At the same time, foreigners became part of the war, with kidnapping and murder. It was more dangerous for Ann to even leave the hotel, never mind march around the city with an Iraqi woman and a baby. But Leyla never faltered or mentioned risk,and the two were assigned to stories of larger import, such as covering major developments involving both the U.S.-led coalition administration and the various Iraqi leaders vying for power. Angus still asked for nothing more than holding Ann every night, but he moved out of the Hotel Palestine when he took a job with the new U.S.-funded Iraqi TV station so he could live closer to the Convention Center, and he slept over less and less frequently. On May 1, President Bush declared the end of combat operations, and the Marines were pulled out of Baghdad, leaving chaos.
And then one morning Leyla whispered to Ann in the red leather chairs of the lobby a scoop no journalist on the roof of the Hotel Palestine had any inkling of: villagers in Al-Hillah, a Shiite town near the ruins of ancient Babylon, 60 miles south of Baghdad, were uncovering mass graves containing the remains of thousands of people massacred by Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime after a failed uprising in 1991. Ann jumped in a car with Leyla and Haddiyah and were the first reporters on the scene. For a while they were lost in farmland, then they came upon streams of Iraqis walking down a narrow dirt road, and then they came to a field behind a farm with hundreds of Iraqis gathered around several large Mitsubishi excavators. Ann and Leyla got out of the car and walked closer, and Iraqis were wailing and yelling all around them. The jaws of the excavator opened and deposited a load of dirt, and Ann saw in the dirt several human bones, a crutch and a prosthetic leg. Iraqis pawed through the dirt looking for something they recognized of their brothers, fathers, sisters, mothers and children. ID cards were discovered, waved and names called out.
Ann interviewed the farmer who owned this field. He explained after Shiite uprising here against Saddam in 1991 he saw truck after truck passing his farmhouse filled with people, and then returning empty. He sliced his neck and covered his eyes and said to say anything would have meant death in the same pits. Over four days thousands of Iraqis were taken to these pits and shot in the head. Ann uploaded her reports to CBS radio from the killing field, and at the end of the day, after walking back to the SUV with Leyla, came upon an old woman in a hijab sitting on her bumper smoking a cigarette. Next to her was a clear plastic bag filled with bones. She shook a hand at Ann and started wailing. Leyla sat next to her talking calmly as she cried out. It took a half hour for her to calm down, and then Ann did an interview with her in which she said her son had been one of the leaders of the uprising against Saddam, and it had only happened because America had told her son and others they would support it with helicopters and weapons.
On the way back to Baghdad, Leyla was quiet. Finally, Ann asked her if she wanted to talk about it. Leyla said no, and somehow Ann started to talk about how she now saw Leyla and Haddiyah as her family, and then told her about her husband Alexander’s suicide over his complicity in all the lies that led up to the war and then her own miscarriage. Leyla had one hand around a sleeping Haddiyah, and with the other touched Ann’s cheek. Her hand was cool, and Ann kissed it. They drove in silence, and then Leyla said, “I want you to take my baby with you when you leave, and raise her in America, not in this country.” Ann was shocked and said she would work to get them both out when the time came, but Leyla shook her head and insisted that she would never escape Baghdad. Before she knew what she was saying, Ann vowed that if something happened to Leyla, she would make sure her baby grew up in America with her.
“Thank you,” said Leyla, taking her hand. “I am your sister now.”
When they got back to the Hotel Palestine that night they found CBS was throwing a big party with music, food and wine up on the roof. And then Ann learned that CBS had not run any of her reports on the killing fields at Al-Hillah. Her editor told her the network was too busy with other news stories that day to cover a massacre from 1991.
That night, Ann considered leaving Baghdad. Most reporters stayed four weeks at a time, and she had been here three months. But by morning she realized she could not walk out on Leyla and Haddiyah.
Baghdad soon became more dangerous. The new police chief resigned in protest at U.S. military procedures. The streets piled with rubbish, women and children were holed up at home, and a growing number of unemployed men entertained themselves with guns.
On Memorial Day, Iraqi insurgents killed the first U.S. soldier in Baghdad. From then on Ann kept a list of every soldier killed in action taped to her hotel wall; she documented where, when, and how they died. Several reporters who stopped by her room and saw the list commented that Ann “wasn’t going to make it if she got so emotionally involved” and warned her it was just going to get worse. But Ann continued to make meticulous lists of the soldiers killed until the end of the year, when the number of troops killed in action just got too high. There were new protests by former Sunni Baath Party police and army officers unable to find work and furious demonstrations by Shiite hardliners who expected the U.S. to do more for them politically and economically. The only escape from the violence and mounting death: her daily time with Leyla and Haddiyah. She would run downstairs to see them every morning and let Haddiyah play with her microphone while Leyla gave her the gossip from the street. Ann took every chance she could to shop in the reopened shops nearby; a few sold baby clothes, and Ann loved surprising them with new summer dresses and jumpsuits for Haddiyah.
Then Ann got sick just after covering a protest by Iraqi policemen at Assassin’s Gate. It might have been from some chicken Leyla had bought her on the street. She had dizzy spells, high fevers and severe chills. It took a few spoiled blood samples and faulty test results before she was diagnosed with typhoid. Leyla bought medicine for her on the black market, and each day Ann took a vial of antibiotic fluids to a private Catholic hospital, where the nurses laughed at her when she rolled up her sleeve and held out her arm, and insisted on injecting it into the veins of her hands. She struggled to keep working, but told Leyla to keep Haddiyah away for a while. Leyla had given her information about complaints from Iraqis about the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, where Saddam had imprisoned, tortured and killed scores of his political opponents. The American military decided to take journalists to Abu Ghraib to show reporters that the prisoners were being treated well, and a group of reporters went on a tour.
Ann found it a strange and macabre tour of the prison. They were shown Saddam’s torture rooms, the hall where prisoners were once hung from iron hooks, but they didn’t get to see or talk to any of the present prisoners inside Abu Ghraib. The brief tour ended with a press conference with the American commander of Abu Graib, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who refused outright Ann’s request to meet some of the Iraqis presently held at Abu Graib. Ann had the name of a prisoner, the son of a woman who worked as a maid at the Hotel Palestine, who said her son was taken at night and she had heard nothing for months. Ann requested to meet this prisoner, and Brigadier General Karpinski ignored her question and took another from a reporter who asked about the food at the prison. Ann noticed her picture was taken several times after she asked her second question, and several officers asked to see her credentials when the briefing with Karpinski was over, and the reporters were herded back outside.
The reporters exited from a different side of the prison. Their bus was waiting for them, but from this side of Abu Ghraib, Ann could see hundreds of Iraqis crowded behind concertina wire. The prisoners screamed to get their attention. They held up signs on cardboard, one of them bearing the word “TORTURE.” Ann heard one of those prisoners calling out her name. It was a twelve-year old boy she had interviewed in the killing fields of Al-Hillah. He was waving madly to her. She remembered he was the son of the man operating the giant backhoe, spoke perfect English, knew all the state capitals, and held a firm belief that if he was brought to America, when he grew up he could help the American Olympic soccer team fare a little better on the world stage. The other reporters were almost all back on the military tour bus. Ann looked at the soldiers who had escorted the bus and one motioned lazily with his M-16 toward the bus. The boy behind the concertina wire was still calling her name: Ann Ann Ann. She turned and walked toward the boy, and then ran toward the concertina wire. The marines yelled to her to halt. She knew she would be tackled, and she was: a short soldier drove her to the ground. Two other marines picked her up by the arms and carried her as if she was a cross back to the bus. They placed her firmly in a seat, and still without a word took away her tape recorder and notepads and camera. As the bus pulled away from Abu Ghraib, Ann looked back and thought she could see the boy behind the wire, but knew she was just picking out one of the hundreds still yelling.
In July American troops killed Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay in the northern city of Mosul. Local residents erupted with joy and celebrated in the traditional way: firing rounds of live bullets into the air. Leyla walked around Baghdad interviewing Iraqis as the bullets rained down around her, while Ann finished filing a story while watching Haddiyah sleep on her bed at the Hotel Palestine. When Leyla returned she filled Ann in on the local coverage and reaction: despite the celebration, many Iraqis didn’t believe that Saddam’s sons were really dead, for it was now a common belief that “Americans lie about all things’. Later that day Ann went with Leyla and Haddiyah and a CBS team up to Mosul and Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit to visit the scene of the shootout, talk with troops involved, and interview people in the town. She met a man missing his arm who said it had been chewed off by a tiger owned by Uday, and a woman who had spent ten days in a room filled with snakes because she was heard to say British Prime Minister Tony Blair was handsome.
When they got back to Baghdad that night it was clear Haddiyah wasn’t feeling well. Leyla said she was teething. It was August, when temperatures hit 130 degrees. Leyla was dropped off at her apartment, and a few hours later called to say that Haddiyah had a fever, and Ann advised her to stay indoors until she was better. The generator in Leyla’s apartment worked most of the time, so they agreed it would be the coolest place for now. Ann made her promise to call if the generator died, and said she would pick Leyla and Haddiyah up and bring them back to her room. Then Ann went to her room at the Hotel Palestine to work on the Tikrit story, and that night when Leyla didn’t check in or answer her phone, Ann drove alone across Baghdad to her apartment. It was empty. Ann’s body froze. She went back to the Hotel Palestine. Early that morning the front desk told Ann that Leyla was on her way up. Ann shook as she waited for her. Leyla walked into her room and said of the baby wrapped in her arms: “She’s dead”. Ann threw her arms around her. Haddiyah’s fever had spiked that afternoon. The generator had stopped working as well as her phone. Leyla had taken Haddiyah to four hospitals. They were full of casualties of the fighting and turned her away. Leyla held and rocked Haddiyah until the baby quietly died in her arms as she sat by the roadside outside the last hospital.
In the late afternoon, Ann and Leyla took the body to the local mosque to be buried, but there was no more room in the cemetery, and they took the corpse back to the Hotel Palestine. Leyla placed the baby in a chair and lay face down on Ann’s bed and cried herself to sleep. Ann stood for a while, and then picked up the baby and spent the night with Haddiyah on her lap sitting in the chair writing imaginary news reports in her head such as one that began with a four line lead:
A beautiful baby named Haddiyah died today in Baghdad. There was no room at a single hospital for a sick baby. Now her lifeless body is in my lap. What the fuck fuck fuck am I doing here?
In the morning, Ann dug a grave on her knees with a cement trowel in a large field behind another Baghdad mosque. The ground was dried mud and she had to scratch and stab for hours before the tiny grave was deep enough. She refused to let Leyla help her dig, so Leyla whispered and sang and rocked her baby. Haddiyah was dressed in a summer dress Ann had bought her. Ann laid flowers she had bought on the black market on her body. The field was filled with the makeshift graves of babies and children who had died in similar circumstances. Just when Ann and Leyla were going to pass out from the punishing heat, two old women brought them a metal can of water.Haddiyah’s body was slowly covered with dirt scooped by Ann’s hand and gently patted down, and her name was carefully written by Leyla on a scrap of yellow paper attached to a stick. Leyla and Ann held each other by the graveside and sobbed until an Iman from the mosque made them leave because Ann wasn’t wearing a head scarf. Later, the Iraqis would bulldoze this field for a new Iraqi government building paid for by the US government. That night at the Hotel Palestine, Leyla lay curled in Ann’s arms, and wiped her tears away with the scarf she had wrapped Haddiyah in as a baby. When not crying Leyla tried to find consolation from knowing that she wouldn’t have to raise Haddiyah “in this new Baghdad”. She thanked Ann over and over for promising to take her baby to America, and Ann surprised herself when she heard herself say almost angrily that she would have died before breaking that promise. Leyla fell asleep in Ann’s arms on the bed. But at dawn Ann awoke with words from the song “Long Black Veil” by Mick Jagger and the traditional Irish band the Chieftains running insane little loops in her head:
Nobody knows, nobody seesNobody knows, but me
For the next few days, Leyla and Ann stayed together in her room and walked now and then on the roof at the hotel, oblivious to the media chaos around them. One morning Ann and Leyla woke up to the news that Baghdad had been hit by its first ever suicide car bombing. Insurgents had attacked the United Nations headquarters and UN Envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello was dead. The next day, Ann went to the bombed out U.N. building with Leyla and then to the Conference Center in the Green Zone, where the U.S. military spokesman said “we have entered a new phase in the war’. Leyla went into a panic and told Ann that Malik had threatened a few weeks earlier to become a suicide bomber, and was afraid if he learned the war had caused the death of his daughter, he would act on his threat. Leyla also admitted that Malik had attacked her a few days before Haddiyah’s death, claiming he knew Leyla was a lesbian and in love with Ann. He was high at the time on heroin, clumsy, and she bit the tip of his nose off as they fought and then escaped. She showed Ann the tip of his nose in a napkin taken from her pocket. It looked like a dried blackberry. “If he doesn’t blow up the Americans,” Leyla said, “Malik will soon come and try to kill me, or both of us.”
A few weeks later, Ann and Leyla raced to the Baghdad Convention Center, and made it just in time for Ambassador Paul Bremer’s big announcement. Saddam was in U.S. custody. Ann found she had no interest in the “biggest story of the war” and started to cover other things like violent attacks on women and girls locked day and night in their apartments and not going to school. But CBS made it clear to Ann they wanted her to cover Saddam, Saddam and Saddam. Ann then tried to cover the growing persecution of Iraq’s remaining Christians. CBS was even less interested in these reports. She reported on it anyway, spent time at a local church, and went to the homes of some of its members. She donated Haddiyah’s clothes, which Leyla had asked her to keep, to families with small children. Ann kept back a small, colorful towel Haddiyah used to love. Ann used to play peek-a-boo with it, and Haddiyah had thought she was hilarious.
Four Blackwater security contractors were ambushed, murdered, and hung off of a bridge in the western city of Fallujah. U.S. troops began fighting Sunni insurgents in Fallujah and fundamentalist Shiite followers of the hard line cleric Muqtada al Sadr in the southern city of Najaf. Civilian deaths climbed into the hundreds. Ann was told to report on the anniversary of 9/11: to go ask some troops in the street does this day remind you why you are fighting here in Iraq? Only a few of the troops she talked to believed there was a link between Saddam and 9/11: they reminded her there were no chemical weapons. She found two soldiers willing to talk about 9/11, and seven soldiers who told her 9/11 had nothing to do with Saddam. Her editor wasn’t happy when she filed her report and it was never run. Her editor told her to go to Sadr City, a slum with two million Shiites, and report on the mood toward the Americans. She and Leyla ended up surrounded by dozens of men who were furious she walked their streets in a button down shirt and that Leyla was not wearing a hijab, and the two had to retreat to a barber shop, and while the mob grew their driver saved their lives by appealing to some local elders. After that, Leyla started to wear a hijab when they went to report, although she hated it, as she loved her jeans and especially had loved wearing some of Ann’s expensive shirts.
On New Year’s Eve Ann and Leyla were awakened by a vicious explosion and the windows of the hotel across the street shattering. A mortar had hit a small hotel occupied by Jordanian businessmen and foreign security consultants. There were body parts everywhere. Ann was walking over human bones, flesh and blood. Later that day, CBS offered to fly her back to the U.S. for a break. Then they ordered her out. Some of her CBS colleagues had told them Ann was having a breakdown. Ann said no. That same night, a car bomb blew up one of Baghdad most popular restaurants, filled with a large number of foreigners. Ann knew a group of reporter friends, including Angus, may have been there. She tried to reach him but couldn’t get through, and raced to the restaurant to stumble through the rubble until she was grabbed by MPs and told to go back to her hotel and wait for news. Ann was back at the Hotel Palestine when Leyla came to the door to give her the news, and Ann collapsed to the floor. Leyla somehow got Ann into the bed, and rocked her. Ann sobbed into Haddiyah’s scarf, and then went in the bathroom and vomited and dry heaved and screamed on and off for hours: Alexander why? Alexander why? She banged her head on the floor so hard that Leyla had to trap her head in her lap. When reporters came to the door to check on Ann, Leyla talked to them in a whisper and said Ann was grieving for a dead husband and a lost baby. The reporters looked confused, but Leyla just shut the door. When Ann finally lay there quietly with her green eyes open but vacant, Leyla somehow carried Ann to the bed, undressed her, and let her suck on her breast until she fell asleep. Two days later, Leyla told her it was her husband Malik who had blown himself up at the restaurant.
British security guards received intelligence information that the Hotel Palestine was going to be attacked next. There was a lot of talk about whether the insurgents could pay the hotel’s Iraqi guards enough to betray the security around the hotel. All the reporters for CNN and MSNBC had already moved to a different hotel, the Al Mansour, across the Tigris near the Green Zone. Ann had been fired by CBS, and they did it to get her out of Iraq. Then CBS moved to the Al Mansour, and Ann was told she wasn’t allowed to make the move, but that a convoy of SUVs would take her to Amman. Ann said she would go to Amman, but only with Leyla. Otherwise, CBS could keep her and Leyla on as reporters and let them move to the Al Mansour and do their job, or the two of them would simply stay at the Hotel Palestine as it emptied out and await their fates. She was playing chicken with CBS, but she would not leave Iraq without Leyla.
For a few days there was no word from CBS. The Hotel Palestine was almost empty. Ann and Leyla left only to get food, and only with an armed guard. It was suddenly as equally dangerous for Leyla as it was for a Western reporter. Interpreters were starting to be abducted, and murdered by the insurgents as traitors. And then one day as they were leaving the Hotel Palestine one of the Iraqi guards called out, “Ann Prendergast?” Then he waggled his tongue and said, “American girl likes Iraqi pussy?” Leyla turned and looked at Ann. Ann knew now it was truly time to leave Iraq, but still would not go without Leyla. That night two CBS reporters showed up and said they were going to Dubai and were willing to try and sneak Leyla across the border. They cut four large boxes for cameras and equipment so there was an eighteen inch opening in the side of each, so when they neared the border Leyla could lie down within them. She was a small woman. At the border the Iraqi guards—despite a large bribe—ordered them to empty everything out. Leyla was dragged away in one direction and when Ann ran yelling after her the Iraqi guards lowered their rifles. The reporters grabbed her by the arms and pulled her back to the SUV. She cursed and smashed her fist on the roof for an hour as they drove from the border, until she became aware of her fury, and was quieted by the thought she had never been so angry in her whole life, never felt so close to wanting to kill someone, never felt so scared by the violence hidden within her. She had no idea such uncompromising rage was possible in the diplomat’s wife she knew as Ann Prendergast. It was hours later that she suddenly became aware of the texture of the seats, the cool air-conditioned glass of the window under her hand. Her hand? She admired her hand, and suddenly it was lovely. And it just was. Her hand. She covered her face with both her beautiful hands and breathed in and out. Her breath. Her lungs. The grinding sounds of the tires. Ann remembered she had made Leyla carry what money she had left taped to her body just in case she was sent back.
In Dubai, Ann was on the satellite phone to Baghdad day and night looking for news about Leyla, or wandered the Sheraton at night like a ghost. The flash of peace or whatever it was with her hands in the SUV was forgotten. She had no money, and the Satellite phone only worked because CBS hadn’t turned off the account. When the two CBS reporters left for the States, she got drunk with Japanese businessmen in their rooms and slept for a week with a British military contractor and former commando named Stephen and for a week an Italian businessman named Stefano, and then the three of them stayed together in one room. As she called all over Baghdad, Ann received bad news about two journalists she knew who had been killed. Ann tried for new credentials from every news organization she could think of but was told the word was out she was a whack job who had lied her way into the job.
I asked Ann if there were any other ramifications of this, and by her blazing look understood at this point she had moved to a new place where ramifications were irrelevant. The best I can tell, a metamorphosis had taken place deep within Ann, such that she had become the stranger who had first called her to Iraq. As Rilke wrote in “Sonnets to Orpheus”:
Though the reflection in the poolOften swims before our eyesKnow the image.
When CBS turned off her satellite phone account, Ann used Stefano’s phone and tracked down a former CBS bodyguard she knew, an ex-SAS Commando who had flirted with her. He agreed to go to Leyla’s apartment. He called back hours later and said Leyla didn’t live there anymore and it had been taken over by Shiite militiamen. Ann heard nothing for another week. She was now with an oilman from Louisiana. Then the clerk at the front desk handed her an email via the CBS bureau in Baghdad at the Hotel Mansour. The subject was “Malik needs to talk to Prendergast,” and it included a cell phone number. Malik was dead so it made no sense. Ann called immediately and Leyla answered. They both cried across the 100 mile divide, and as Ann talked on the phone she found herself sucking on a knuckle, and then kissing her own hand over and over.
Leyla said it was the last time she could speak on this number; she was going to begin working as an interpreter for the American military on the Fourth of July. When the Iraqis had taken her away, on the way back to Baghdad, they were stopped by an American patrol. Leyla yelled in English about how she was a translator for CBS being taken off to be raped. She jumped from the car and stood with the American soldiers, and they lowered their guns at the Iraqis and took her back to base, and that was how she got hired. She said she would write as soon as she had access to the Army’s mail service.
A week later Ann received a letter in Dubai. Leyla was living at Camp Liberty, a military base at the Baghdad airport, and working with the 101st Airborne Division. Leyla had access to the internet and soon sent her first e-mail, one of hundreds that Ann was to receive. Leyla began to paint an astounding chronicle of life on the front lines: vivid accounts of combat, the scope of the insurgency, civilian deaths, and witnessing her friends and colleagues die. Without any close relatives, the military base became Leyla’s home, and the American soldiers her second family. She wrote to me that the Army was taking care of her salary and security. And Leyla had already had two marriage proposals, one from a eighteen year old soldier from Hawaii who she said looked like George Clooney in Ocean’s Eleven. Every chance she got she watched American movies. But what mattered most to Leyla was her new job. There were only three female interpreters on the American military base and, as a result, the troops relied on her when they needed to question women civilians or prisoners. Leyla was also working with soldiers patrolling the streets of Baghdad and manning checkpoints. Although U.S. servicewomen are barred from infantry troops, special operations forces, and heavy artillery units, Iraqi women were not, and Leyla was sent with American soldiers on daily missions.
One day she was sent with a squad on a mission to track down insurgents who attacked a joint U.S./Iraqi checkpoint with rockets, killing several of the American troops. On the way back one of the troops—the George Clooney look-alike—shot dead an nine year old Iraqi boy who had approached and offered a gift, which the soldiers thought was a bomb. Afterwards, one of the soldiers opened the box and found a white mouse. When they got back to base, Leyla went to check in on the young soldier who had shot the boy. As she approached the barrack room she heard a pistol shot and the soldier screaming. He had shot himself in the head but was alive, but died in a spasm at her feet. Leyla quickly took the pistol and pointed it at herself and pulled the trigger as other soldiers ran in. There had been only one bullet in the chamber. The soldiers thought she had shot him, and wrestled her to the ground, breaking her scapula. She wrote to Ann, “I have broken my angel wing” as that was what the Army doctor had called it.
Leyla was admitted to the Combat Support Hospital, CASH, inside the Green Zone, normally restricted to U.S. troops. After medication and therapy for severe post-traumatic stress disorder and when her “angel wing” was healed, she was sent back to work and told that if she hung tough she would someday get a passport and a ride on a C-130 to America. She sent heart-wrenching descriptions of the black hole into which she had fallen. She was soon diagnosed with bleeding ulcers. The two other female interpreters were abducted, tortured, and killed when they left the base to return home. Their naked, headless bodies were left in the back of a Nissan truck near the base where the soldiers went on daily patrols. The heads were strapped into the driver and passenger seats, and shit was smeared on their faces. Her emails to Ann became more alarming then and even more so after the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when the other GI who had asked to marry her was blown up by a roadside bomb and she watched his legless torso bleed to death. She wrote of the infiltration of the Iraqi Army by insurgents and terrorists. She spotted one Sunni she had seen casing the Hotel Palestine in their final days there. He saw her and he saw she knew him, and he ran his finger across his throat. She ran and told a Major, a search was instigated, but the Iraqi was never found after four hours of searching.
Then days went by with no news from Leyla, and Ann panicked. She called the number she had been given on the base and spoke with a Captain Maldrone. He told her there had been a tightening of security on base, and as locals, Iraqi interpreters were no longer allowed to use cell phones or the internet, and their movements on the base more restricted. He told Ann that if Leyla wanted to help her case, and maybe get a golden ticket to America when the Iraqi Show was over, she should convert to Christianity. Ann realized Leyla was going to be cut off from her. The Colonel called Leyla to the phone, and Ann choked back tears as she said goodbye, knowing it would be the last she would hear Leyla’s voice for a long time. Ann soon received word from her explaining that the military now didn’t trust the interpreters and searched their tents daily. Leyla added that she didn’t trust her fellow interpreters either and feared they would take her money and possessions. One day, out of the blue, Ann received a letter that Leyla had converted to Christianity. Soon after three male interpreters attacked Leyla in the shower house, angry that she had converted and suspicious of her motives. They banged her head on the concrete floor and she lost consciousness, but she managed to escape rape and probable death due to a fourth interpreter named Ahmed who rushed in screaming and swinging a length of heavy electrical wire.
Ann knew it was past time to get Leyla out, if she was going to survive. But when Ann looked into it, she found that Leyla would have to flee to another country and become a refugee there before she could have a chance at resettlement. The only way she could get a U.S. visa was through a job offer, which was nearly impossible, or by marrying an American, but both of her future husbands were already dead, and Leyla had entered a dark place, was heavily medicated, and barely functioning as an interpreter.
Ann borrowed money from her family in North Carolina and took an apartment in Dubai, and made it her full time job to get Leyla out of Iraq. She made hundreds of phone calls and learned there were thousands of Iraqis whose lives and families were now in danger because of their work for the U.S. Leyla was on a list, but there were thousands ahead of her, and the list meant nothing, because the door was closed. In the next month, Leyla went into a clinical and almost catatonic depression when she learned there was no way out. She lay on her cot and didn’t respond to commands, and was carried back to the hospital. Medications had no affect, and she went through several rounds of electro-shock therapy. This got her out of bed, and soon she was forced back out on patrol. Every few weeks she was sent back for more ECT. She told Ann it was like being kicked in the head “so you forget everything all your feeling and all your memories and just move like robot flesh’. In early 2008, the U.S. finally issued a few visas to interpreters. Ann jumped on the chance and worked to get one for Leyla. But it proved to be a painstaking procedure, with at least nine separate steps, even for someone who had already been vetted by the U.S. military. Leyla had to get a new passport and a letter of recommendation from a top-ranking American general. After all the forms were finally done, her application was lost during a rotation of troops. Leyla and Ann had to start at the beginning. When the multiple forms were again in painstaking order, Leyla paid Ahmed, who had saved her from the shower attack, to get her a passport in Baghdad and she submitted all the forms and was finally issued a visa after several more months.
On another 130-degree day in August, 2008, Leyla left Camp Liberty thinking she would be in Dubai with Ann by evening, but was stopped at the Iraqi border. Leyla’s Iraqi passport was fake. They wouldn’t let her out. The interpreter who had “bought” it for her months earlier had taken the money and duped her. She was taken away in a black car. An Iraqi General sat in the back with her and pushed her head into his lap and said he would get her a new passport and across the border for a hundred blow jobs. He told her she could live at his house while she completed the contract. The General took out a gun when she refused and put it to her head. Still, she refused. He drove her to a Sunni neighborhood and kicked her out of the car after stripping off her hajib and finding money taped under her breasts, stripped her of that. She was stranded in the street at dusk topless and terrified of being killed by Sunni insurgents. Leyla’s worst nightmare had come true. She was on her own in the streets of Baghdad. She crawled under a car and hid until nightfall. She had put a hundred dollars in each of her shoes. She found a torn and filthy hijab in a car wrecked by an old suicide bombing. She took a taxi back to the base she had left just hours earlier, but without her official badges—which she had given up—was not allowed to enter. She asked the taxi driver if he could sell her a gun so she could kill herself. She didn’t have enough cash. Right then Leyla had a clear vision of Ann’s face, and asked the taxi driver to take her to the home of the Iraqi General.
Five months later—without any real help from Ann—Leyla finally walked through Dubai customs. She walked up to Ann and said, touching her rounded stomach lightly, “It is Haddiyah. She is here because of you.”