Fighting broke out on the Saudi-Kuwaiti border today, but Saudi troops quickly intervened to quell the hostilities.
We were screaming along at 60 miles per hour across the untracked desert in a school bus, just a mortar round from the Kuwaiti border, when two French reporters started going at each other. “You are a baby,” one shouted. “No, you are a baby,” countered the other, lunging across the aisle at the throat of his compatriot. A Saudi major, one of our military escorts, ran to the back of the bus and stepped between the warring newsmen. They were fighting because one had snapped a picture of a soldier wearing a gas mask, and the other had missed it.
It had been a long day, starting in the lobby of the Dhahran International Hotel at first light. The Saudis had posted a sign-up sheet with 30 spaces for press people who wanted to visit Arab troops near the border. More than 80 had signed up before the Saudis removed the list.
“Line up in the lobby to board the bus to the airport,” the Saudis said. So we lined up. “Line up outside,” they said, and we went through the revolving door and stood in the driveway, where it was already around 100 degrees. No, better do it inside, they decided. The door never stopped revolving, with some reporters going in, some going out, and all going crazy.
“No one who is not on the list will be able to go,” the Saudis said, checking us off one by one.
After a five-minute ride, the buses disgorged on the tarmac next to the plane. Led by a chain-smoking Japanese television crew, the reporters stormed the steps. “Stop! Stop!” pleaded a Saudi official, who looked comfortable but not very authoritative in his delicate white robe. “No one who is not on the list can board!” he shouted, fighting his way up the steps to block the reporters.
“Why can’t you behave like adults?” he begged.
He began to call names from the list. When he called television reporter Bob Simon, there was silence until another American reporter, very much not Bob Simon, came forward. He got on. The Japanese continued to push, digging in their feet and sticking out their bony butts to block anyone else from getting up the steps. Another Saudi official whispered to his boss that since the plane had 100 seats, why not just let everyone board.
So he did.
An hour later we were at King Khaled Military City, an extraordinarily modern military base in the middle of the northern desert. We were met by a group of Saudi officers and piled into school buses painted desert brown. We drove along the highway for an hour or so, until the driver suddenly pulled off the road and headed across the desert. Here the sand was flat, hard-packed, and mixed with gravel. In other places, a fine, powdery sand was carved by the winds into delicately curved dunes that looked like snowdrifts. There were no trees anywhere and only occasional scruffy vegetation.
Our first stop was the Saudis’ forward headquarters, a group of tents in the sand protected by tanks pointing north toward Kuwait. The tents were white on the outside and ornately embroidered in yellow on the inside, with red and green Oriental rugs covering the sandy ground. We sat on stiff cushions, sipping coffee and sweet tea, and the general said, “I’m glad you came at the hottest time of day so you know what it is like to be a soldier.” Another Saudi officer suggested that if I were really thirsty, I should put a rock under my tongue.
We piled into jeeps and roared off into the desert again, kicking up rooster tails of sand behind us. I dont know how the driver navigated with no landmarks and nothing on the horizon except silver ribbons that shimmered like water (so that’s what a mirage looks like), but he found the Moroccan army camp. An officer who looked like he had been in the middle of a nap came out of a tent, buttoning his fly, to greet us. Other Moroccan troops, some in civilian clothes and wearing flip-flops, sat on pieces of cardboard placed in the shade alongside their trucks. One truck had a shelter made from plastic sheets tied to shovels stuck in the sand.
Before the sun set in a big orange ball, we also had visited the Syrians, the Kuwaitis, and the Egyptians. Luckily, we ate lunch with the well-equipped Saudis, who served us chicken, lamb, and fish. After lunch the soldiers knelt before sandbags placed in a V pointing toward Mecca and touched their heads to the burning sand. The television cameramen got down on their knees too, aiming their lenses at the praying Saudis. On the way back to the airport, after the French fight, the bus stopped abruptly along the road. Another French reporter got off the bus with a Saudi officer, who led her to a pile of rocks. She unbuttoned her jeans and squatted. The Saudi officers on the bus, aghast, tried not to look.
Climbing the steps to get back on the plane, I said good-naturedly to our handler from the Saudi Information Ministry, “It’s tough to manage all these reporters, isnt it?”
“I’ve been doing this 30 years,” he shrieked. “I studied in the United States. Don’t tell me how to do my job. Why dont you people act like adults? Never again, never again. The Saudi press is going to hear about this, mark my words. The Arab News. The Saudi Gazette.”
The call had come on a Saturday afternoon, August 11. “This is the office of the secretary of defense,” a deep-voiced marine advised. “The national media pool has been activated.”
The pool to cover “incursions” by the U.S. military had been formed in 1985, following the surprise American invasion of Grenada. Because the press suffered such an embarrassing news blackout there, the major news organizations petitioned the Pentagon for access during any future invasion. Astonishingly, the Pentagon agreed, and a pool of reporters–filled on a rotating basis by the major media–was established, with promises that it would be dispatched to any future battle along with our soldiers.
As the luck of the draw would have it, I was the Scripps Howard reporter assigned to the pool the day the 17-member press gang was activated. My bag was packed and ready to go–but where? Liberia was engulfed in a civil war in which the guerrillas’ idea of combat dress was bathrobes, wigs, and football helmets. While they chopped their opponents’ ears off, the U.S. Marines were evacuating American dependents.
Maybe I was headed to the Middle East, where Iraq had stormed in and toppled Kuwait on August 2. I had been expecting the call for several days, but still my heart skipped a beat with excitement. “Come to the Pentagon right away with your passport and your suit size,” the marine said.
“My suit size?”
“Yes, sir,” the marine said. “For your chemical suit.”
Saudi King Fahd had not wanted any reporters to come over with the troops, but U.S. media pressure on the Pentagon led to pressure on the Saudis and access for the pool, which the Saudis figured was better than an outbreak of uncontrollable journalism. Eventually the Saudis would open the normally closed kingdom to more than 300 reporters from around the world; but in the first weeks of the U.S. deployment, those in the pool were the only media with the troops.
The pool consisted of a television crew, three photographers, a radio reporter, and six writers. Under the rules of the pool, our stories and images were to be made available gratis to all U.S. media.
“No one will take you in-country without a chem briefing,” a Pentagon official told me when I presented my passport. We were to fly first to Tampa, Florida, to meet the commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf and learn to use our protective suits, gas masks, and the syringes that carry antidotes for nerve gas.
I had always wanted to visit the Middle East, but not in a chem suit. I had covered combat for five years in Central America, and on the plane we tried to out-macho each other, joking about the smell of the portable toilet being worse than any chemical attack. Still, we all remembered the stories of blistered skin and how you could die from a drop of nerve gas the size of a pinhead.
In Tampa they briefed us on the military situation and distributed some fact sheets. One document laid down the “ground rules,” which prohibited us from revealing where we were in Saudi Arabia, how many troops we saw, what their defenses were, and even the names of the soldiers, because the military feared terrorist reprisals against their families.
While in Tampa, I ran into a general I knew from the Pentagon. He shook my hand as we were leaving and warned, “Pay attention at that chem briefing.” Bravely, I said I would. We didn’t get the briefing, though. Our suits were being “palletized” and put on the plane, they told us, and we would learn to use them in Saudi Arabia.
After 30 hours–mostly in the belly of a C-141 that was so noisy we had to wear foam earplugs–we touched down August 13 at an air base in Saudi Arabia (can’t say which one) that was filled with soldiers (can’t say how many) from around the United States (can’t say their names) who were protected by sophisticated weapons (can’t say how) and were headed for the field (can’t say where).
In some ways the ground rules made our job a dream assignment: without any facts to clutter up the stories, we had less to worry about. We didn’t have to check the spelling of names, count heads, or even know where we were, except to remember it was “Somewhere in Saudi Arabia.”
Because we couldn’t use soldiers’ names, I had to keep inventing new ways to describe them. The sergeant with the chiseled features and piercing eyes. The major with the pert bosom straining at the sheer fabric of her flight suit. (Later the military lifted the no-names rule.)
I even came to enjoy watching the public-affairs officers–aka our handlers–censor our stories, deleting names and places and numbers of weapons that would give aid and comfort to the enemy. Army Lieutenant Colonel Larry Icenogle, a burly tank-warfare man turned public-affairs officer and known to us as the Iceman, would hold my little Radio Shack computer in his big paws, look up at me, and say, “Don’t you think ‘due to the fact’ is a little verbose?”
We were not amused, however, when the Iceman said we were only going to spend 24 hours in Saudi Arabia before being shipped back to the States. We screamed and howled, he called the Pentagon, and we were allowed to stay. Still, we thought each day would be our last, so we jumped up every morning at “O-dark-30” and worked until we dropped.
We were so busy, we almost forgot about our chemical suits. But I made a point of asking a couple of soldiers how to work the masks, just in case.
I wanted to do a story about the Vietnam veterans serving in Saudi Arabia, and had no trouble finding colonels and generals who had been lieutenants and captains in Vietnam. But finding noncommissioned officers, the sergeants, was a problem. When they see reporters, they head for the dark places. Some are shy, many still blame the press for losing Vietnam, and others think that in general reporters are “press corps pukes” or “news weenies,” and that writing about military operations is traitorous.
Fred Spriggs, a senior noncom in the Air Force and an editor of base newspapers for ten years, was an exception. “I know a great guy you could talk to,” he volunteered, and we hopped in his car. We walked into a Saudi headquarters that had been taken over by the Americans and asked around until we found Sergeant Brown sitting at a desk.
Fred introduced me to Sergeant Brown, explaining that I was writing about how the Vietnam experience colored the views of the older sergeants in Saudi Arabia. “You were in Nam, right?” Fred asked. Sergeant Brown nodded yes, but didn’t say anything. “Well, will you talk to Peter?” I hadn’t said anything either, standing there with a stupid grin, trying to look honest and trustworthy without being a wimp. Sergeant Brown, who carefully avoided looking at me, told Fred, “You’ve got the wrong sergeant. I don’t talk to reporters.”
“Peter’s one of the good ones,” Fred told him.
“Sorry,” said Sergeant Brown.
Saying good-bye, I offered my hand. He took it and refused to look at me–but everybody else in the room did. Although I felt like a schmuck, I tried to act like this happened all the time to us hard-bitten news commandos. Fred was embarrassed: “I’m really sorry. Sergeant Brown must have had a bad experience with a reporter sometime. We’ll find somebody else.”
So, how hot was it? It was so hot that going outside was like being hit in the face with a rolled-up carpet. Even on the stillest of days, the heat felt like wind. At first I ran around hatless and in short sleeves, thinking it wasn’t much worse than El Paso. After the second day my head throbbed, and I woozily stumbled back to the hotel. I drank a gallon of water, feeling it flush through me and race to my tingling skin. On a helicopter with the doors open, we flew 100 miles per hour, about 100 feet above the desert. The wind pulled up brown columns of sand, and thermals rocked the chopper. So much sand whipped across my face that I thought my eyes were bleeding. I felt dizzy and nauseated before getting chills so severe that I started shaking. The next day I bought a hat, rolled down my sleeves, and never went anywhere without a bottle of water.
Because the American and Iraqi tanks had not yet faced off, we diverted ourselves by tormenting our Pentagon handlers,
We spent one day visiting the troops with the CINC (pronounced “sink,” it means commander in chief, but everything at the Pentagon has to have an acronym). The CINC is General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, a big rambling bear of a man who would make a terrific grandfather, even if he is a trained killer. He wore desert-camouflage fatigues and looked no different from the troops, except for the four silver stars on his cap.
And he was trailed, by five mean-looking fellows in jeans and fishing vests, packing cut-down M16s with long suppressors. I couldn’t help noticing how beat-up, how used-looking, the silencers were. I also couldn’t help noticing that these guys treated us like dirt balls. Every time I got strapped into one of four Blackhawk helicopters heading for the next stop, one of them would point at me and mouth over the noise of the rotors, “You. Out.” I would unfasten myself, clutch my gear, and run to another helicopter, instinctively keeping my head low, even though I’m too short to worry.
On one leg of the trip, one of the bodyguards didn’t get a pair of earplugs. No problem. He popped a couple rounds out of an extra magazine and jammed the bullets, business end first, into his ears. Ever the jester, I made a motion to box his ears. “Wouldn’t matter,” he shouted over the engine. “It’d happen too fast. Wouldn’t feel a thing.”
So who are these guys? we asked our handlers.
“All I can say is they are active-duty military,” a handler said.
“Then why do they wear civilian clothes?”
“To be less conspicuous,” we were told.
Ah, the fishing vests were for fishing, in the middle of the desert. And all those bullets were earplugs, or lures for sand trout.
So the well-protected grandfather was out visiting his troops. It really was just a photo-op with not much news. But that didn’t stop us.
During a pep talk to a group of airmen and airwomen who maintain A10 attack jets more than 100 miles from the Kuwaiti border, the general told them, “Let’s face it, if he dares come across that border and comes down here, I’m completely confident. we’re going to kick his butt when he gets here.”
Bulletin and lead, we shouted as we raced back to the choppers. “General cedes 100 miles of Saudi territory.” “Iraqi attack welcomed.”
Our handlers winced.
At the next stop the enthusiastic troops got the general into a lather, and like a basketball coach before the state finals, he shouted, “Go get ’em.”
Noticing again the TV camera pointed into his face, the general cleared his throat and backtracked. “Well, we’re in a defense posture down here, so if he does come down, we’ll handle him.”
Stop the presses, we shouted, giddy now in the hot sun. “General orders attack.” “General cancels attack.” “General indecisive.”
The handlers groaned. Lucky for everybody, they thought, we were 20 miles from a phone.
The Iceman was towering over the French photographer, cameras hanging from every part of him.
“Three times in three different publications you used a Dhahran dateline,” the Iceman screamed. “That is a clear violation of the ground rules, and you are no longer going to have access to U.S. forces!” The Iceman was flushed and ready for a little hand-to-hand.
The Frenchman looked up and asked in a thick accent, “But, but we are in Dhahran, no?”
The Iceman later ordered that the press buses depart exactly on time so that the perpetually late French photographers would be left behind.
The first time we met a Saudi prince, we wondered how to address him properly. The second time, we asked some tough questions. Around the fifth or sixth time, we began to admire the prowess of the “father” of the Saudi nation. After a month we had met so many princes (and they all had variations on the same name) that we took to giving them pet names.
The Chatty Prince kept inviting us back to his palace. It was a large desert-brown building that looked like a fort belonging to the French Foreign Legion. We ate in a large hall filled with smiling Filipino waiters and tables that were heavy with food. On one table was a giant silver platter heaped with rice. In the middle, curled in a fetal position, was an entire roasted lamb, little bony head and all. After the, meal we retired to an indoor tent. It really was a tent indoors, ornately decorated with Oriental rugs and rich cushions for sitting.
Flying to the palace in a Saudi military plane, I tried out my nascent Arabic on one of our Saudi handlers from the Information Ministry. “Peace be upon you,” I said. He smiled, and returned the greeting, adding, “Are you Jewish?”
“No,” I said, laughing because I hoped it was a joke. “Why?”
“Because Jews learn fast,” he said.
The Chatty Prince had a pretty good sense of humor too. I figured we were old pals, so I asked, “What’s the best thing about being a prince?”
He thought for a minute and said, “You get good tables at restaurants. The bad thing is, they expect you to tip a lot.”
Saudi joke: Asked whether sex is work or pleasure, the American says, “Pleasure, obviously.” The German Says, “Sounds like work to me.” The Saudi says, “It must be fun, because if it were work, I’d pay a Filipino to do it for me.”
You can drive all day and not see a Saudi working. This is a nation of executive directors. The Saudis have hired Americans and Europeans as technicians and scientists, Koreans for construction, Filipinos to wash dishes, and Pakistanis to drive the cabs. Seventy-five percent of the work force is foreign. Why work if you can pay someone to do it for you?
Imagine a third-world country where everyone won the lottery. Imagine Jed Clampett is king, Jethro is the crown prince, and Mr. Drysdale is Uncle Sam. Granny and Elly Mae are wearing veils out by the cement oasis.
Thirty years ago Saudi Arabia didn’t have a freeway. It took all day to phone from Riyadh to Jidda, and the call had to be routed through Rome. Now the smallest village is wired with TouchTones, and ribbons of highway have been laid across the desert, even though the roads are always empty because there are only seven million Saudis (and four million foreigners) in a country the size of the United States east of the Mississippi.
“Beautiful building, beautiful building,” intoned our guide on a tour of the capital, Riyadh, repeating it like a chant in praise of his country’s good fortune. Beautiful, yes, if you think Dallas is beautiful–steel and glass rising out of the desert, chilled shelters from the environment. European and American architects compete to make the most impressive structures. Some buildings have a touch of Arab design, but most are nondenominational modern, and the Interior Ministry is an inverted pyramid that looks like a spaceship. We passed by a marble-walled compound with a big house flanked by four smaller houses, which meant that its owner had four wives, the maximum permitted in Islam. “I only have one wife,” the guide said apologetically, “but four children.”
Saudis like big homes called villas that are surrounded by high walls. Outside they are closed and imposing; inside they are spacious and airy, with separate areas for men and women. The government built scores of beautiful apartments for its citizens, but they remain empty because Saudis prefer their villas. Now the apartments will be used to house Kuwaiti refugees.
One home I visited was richly decorated with Middle Eastern art, including a gorgeous Oriental rug that probably cost more than I will make in my lifetime. The Arab custom is that if someone admires one of your possessions, you give it to him. I seriously considered admiring that rug. Our host–a typical man-on-the-street Saudi millionaire–said the only problem with the new wealth was that this generation of young people has been spoiled and doesn’t want to work. His own daughter is at Swarthmore, and his son has yet to decide between Amherst and Williams. “You could meet them,” our host said in perfect English through perfect teeth, “but they are at our home in San Francisco.”
Most of the men at the dinner said they also had sent their families out of the country after the August 2 invasion of Kuwait. Dhahran is where the oil wells are and would be Saddam’s first target.
We sat around a glass table in front of the swimming pool. Filipino men served us sweet tea with dates and little cups of coffee spiced with cardamom. In the old days people showed off their wealth with camels; now they show off with BTUs. It was so cold in the house I wished I had a sweater. Saudi Arabia is the only place I’ve ever been where your glasses fog up when you go outside.
While many families had left the area, foreign workers were not encouraged to do the same. In fact, some of them found it difficult to leave without losing their jobs and all their benefits. Explaining that the government was trying to keep the “expats” in the country, a Saudi man whined, “Do they expect us to pump our own oil?”
“Hello, this is Michael Gordon from the New York Times.” I sat down on the bed of my hotel room. I had been expecting this. When you get a call from the New York Times, you can be pretty sure it’s not because they want to do a story on how good a job you are doing. The pool–we called ourselves the “Keepers of the Inverted Pyramid”–had been dissolved after two weeks because the Saudis had agreed to let in other reporters. Our final act as a pool was a basketball game against the hotel staff. We won that one. Now when we went down to breakfast there was Sam and Tom and Dan. Our pool reports had been available to any newspaper, radio station, or television station in the country. The networks and the big papers used them sparingly, however, preferring to wait until their own reporters got to Saudi Arabia. “So how come you guys didn’t use more of the pool reports?” I asked Gordon, who was staying in another Saudi hotel. “It was mostly ‘gee whiz’ stuff,” he replied, in his usual diplomatic way.
“We were denied the big picture,” I told Gordon who agreed he had been getting more information back at the Pentagon than he was getting now in Saudi Arabia. “We had a grunt’s-eye view of the world,” I said. Gordon did a good story on the press, “Lots of Sweat, Little News,” that actually made me look good. It was with perverse pleasure that I then watched him and Sam and Tom and Dan doing the stories we had already done–it’s hot, it’ s sandy, and it’s boring. You know there is not news when reporters start interviewing each other. I even did a live spot over the telephone for C-SPAN. “There’s been a lot of criticism here at home,” the crackly voice said to me, “that the reporters have been going out during the day and shooting these desert scenes and then returning at night to luxury hotels. Where are you now?”
I wanted to say, “Hang on a sec! There’s another camel coming into my tent.” But I explained that no matter how good a story you get in the field, you have to file it from a telephone. And I wouldn’t call it a luxury hotel.
I had been in Saudi Arabia for three week’s before I met a Saudi woman.
The president of a prestigious university was telling me how most women agree with the separation of the sexes. It is an expression of Islam, not sexism, he said. I said, with all due respect, that I would like to hear that from a woman.
“My daughter is coming to pick me up. You can meet her,” he said. It was an astounding offer, really, as if he had offered up nude pictures of his wife.
A dozen Saudi men at the gathering were dressed in white robes and headdresses, sitting on the floor or on low couches. (In case you are wondering, underneath those robes they wear boxer shorts and T-shirts, regulation white.) We could hear the women guests in another room, but we couldn’t see them.
There was no mixing of the sexes. Even when women work, they have separate offices and cannot have contact with men, except by telephone. The theory is that the only thing that happens when men and women get together is sex. Since sex is reserved for marriage, there is no reason for unmarried men and women to be together. At Saudi schools for girls, the male teachers stand in a separate room and give their lectures via closed-circuit television.
In public women looked like ravens, draped in black robes, black headdresses, veils to the eyes, and even black gloves. Some wore black gauze over their faces so they could see out, but men could not see in. An American man living there told me, “You be come a connoisseur of ankles.” I don’t think I even saw any ankles. I did begin to notice eyebrows. I also developed a suicidal desire to talk with one of these women, to flirt with one, just to see what would happen. If they cut off your hand for stealing, I wondered what they would cut off for flirting. I realized my fantasies proved the Islamic point, but I felt starved for female contact. Denied the most innocent contact with women, I lusted for them. What did it mean to have an entire nation sexually frustrated? Or was it just me?
I went out to swim one morning at the hotel pool and was stopped short by a sign that said, “Ladies Hours: 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.” Men could swim the rest of the day. But while I was shooed away from the pool in the morning, women would come by the pool in the afternoon and watch the men swim.
Around midnight at the Saudi party, the doorbell rang and the university president’s daughter was announced. She did not come in, though, and the Americans were ushered outside to see her. One of the Saudi men, showing me to the door, whispered, “You can meet her, but we can’t.”
She was a shy 17-year-old in slacks and a blouse, no black robe and no veil. “Oh, Daddy,” she said, blushing, whenever the president bragged about her. We said good-bye and the two got in the car, with the girl at the wheel. Only later did it hit home that she was driving, in a country where women are not allowed to drive. Once again, Saudi culture proved to be like the mirage shimmering on the horizon.
Intrigued by their role, we got our Saudi hosts to arrange an interview with a group of Saudi women. Unfortunately, male reporters were banned, so we sent in a tape recorder with the female reporters. One of the Saudi women, asked why the men wore white but the women wore black in such a hot climate, replied, “It is more oppressive.”
A sort of “Dear Imam” advice column about religion appears in Saudi newspapers, and one such expert, pushing the limit of what is allowed, suggested it was acceptable in controlled circumstances to see your bride before marriage, even without a veil.
Saudi culture lives under such tight censorship that its handlers could teach ours a thing or two about suppressing expression. Someone goes through all foreign magazines–every copy–and rips out the articles about Saudi Arabia. The same handler uses a Magic Marker on photos to black out the legs, arms, and necks of women. If the offending photograph is too large–say, of a woman in a tennis dress–it too is ripped from the magazine.
I asked Bader, a strapping 21-year-old chemistry student, how he meets girls on campus.
“I don’t know any girls,” he said.
“No, I mean really,” I said. “Secretly.”
My new friend leaned away from me in the backseat of the car, pressing himself against the door to get away from me. It was like I had asked, “So Bader, do you masturbate with your right hand or your left?”
Finally he said, “My mother is looking for a wife for me. She knows what I would like.”
In the trade it’s known as a “gang bang.” It’s that low point in a journalist’s day when a celebrity arrives and all of us have to go yapping after his heels like so many puppies, hoping that he will say something clever, important, or at least inflammatory. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney (known as the SecDef over at Five Sides) certainly qualified as a celebrity when he arrived in Saudi Arabia.
It was all assholes and elbows on the tarmac of the Saudi air base. Under the Pentagon rules, if we wanted access to U.S. troops, we were required to follow our handlers.
“You’re in my shot,” yelled a cameraman.
“Fuck you,” came the measured response from another news commando.
Cheney was talking to soldiers, who couldn’t decide whether to be cool and avoid the cameras or follow their instincts and ham it up. It was 130 degrees, and 50 reporters and photographers were jamming up as close as we could to hear the soft-spoken Cheney have a natural, off-the-cuff conversation with these kids he had sent to fight and maybe die in the desert.
I saw Brigadier General Turki, who was not only the base commander but also a Saudi prince. He was a decent sort and looked good in a flight suit.
(Turki’s outfit reminded me of my chem suit–where was it? And what about my chem briefing? Earlier my handier had said I shouldn’t worry. If hostilities appeared imminent, we would be given the suits and be briefed. I imagined the scene: Saddam Hussein calls General Schwarzkopf. “Hello, general? I’m about to bomb you with mustard and nerve gas. Will you tell the press pool to put on their suits?”)
I left Cheney to the hounds and shot the breeze with Prince Turki, who was supposed to be giving Cheney the tour but had been sort of forgotten in the excitement. At that point Cheney swerved and headed toward us, led by a flying wedge of American security types absurdly dressed in polyester suits and followed by the yapping crowd. Wham, an elbow got me in the chest. Wham, another elbow got Prince Turki, who spun out on the other side of the pack. Looking lost on his own air base, Turki glanced around for someone to notice him. When no one did, he turned and got back onto his bus while Cheney, oblivious, finished the tour on his own.
Camels, we want to see camels. How can you go to Saudi Arabia and not see camels?
Every time we drove across, flew over, or walked through the desert, I had my eyes peeled for camels. After each day I would compare notes with John Ydstie, the National Public Radio reporter in the pool. We had seen very few camels.
We told our Saudi friends that we wanted to go to the ancient town of Hofuf to see the camel market. I complained that we hadn’t seen anything in Saudi Arabia built before 1970, and we wanted to see something folkloric, traditional. What could be more authentic than a camel market?
Our Saudi friends, who really wanted us to learn about their country, sent a driver to pick us up, and we drove the two hours to Hofuf. There we were met by a man from the area who would be our guide for the day. The first stop was the old city market. Now this, I thought, is more like it.
The covered market was filled, with row after row of little stalls selling spices, sandals, robes, and trinkets. Pungent sandalwood incense burned in silver charcoal braziers. Every other stall had hair tonic, but most of the Saudis we had met so far were the blow-dried variety. This place clearly was for the masses. I wanted to ask our blow-dried guide if people really used camel urine for hair tonic, but I held my tongue.
“Come, come,” said a scruffy, one-eyed man. He handed John a battered copper bowl whose design had been scratched in with a nail.
“Silver, silver,” the man assured John. I stepped in as John’s financial adviser, counseling, “Silver my ass.”
“No, no. Is silver. Forty.” Then he went on about something in Arabic.
“What’s he saying?” John asked.
I winged it. “He says, ‘Today only. I make special price for you. Forty riyals.’ About ten bucks. Tell him you’ll give him 20 riyals and not a halala more.”
“What’s he saying now?” John asked, for some reason accepting the idea that I actually understood Arabic. After living in Mexico for five years, I did, however, speak the international language of the market.
“Now he says that it cost him 35, and he would take a loss to sell it to you for 20. Stand firm. He’s weakening.”
But John, the wimp, pulled out his wallet, making the gesture of submission. He might as well have bared his neck to a wolf. Forty riyals.
Emboldened by his success, John decided to try his negotiating skills with a bedouin lady dressed in black and veiled to the eyes. She sat on the ground amid bundles of rugs and bags. She was hunkered down outside the market, which meant she was too poor to even have a stall. Easy pickings, thought I.
John, the son of a Lutheran minister from North Dakota, is the most decent and polite of people. “Hello,” he said into the dark eyes of the bedouin lady, the only part of her that showed.
“What have you got in there?” He leaned forward to peer into a wrinkled plastic shopping bag.
She reached into the bag and pulled out a dozen engraved silver bracelets, worn smooth around the edges by years of wear. They were not great quality, but they had a certain beauty, made richer by the fact that they had probably been in someone’s family for years. “Forty,” she said to John, holding up a small bracelet and a larger one. Forty was either the price of the day or the only number people knew in English. “For baby,” she said, holding the smaller one. With the larger one she said, “For madame.”
With no other Westerners in the market, we were an oddity. People stopped to hear our conversations. One man said in elaborate Arabic that he was a bedouin and would be most honored if we would visit his tent in the desert. Our guide tried to blow him off as a pesky country bumpkin, but I said to tell the man we would be delighted to visit some other day.
John was still talking to the bedouin lady, who had begun to cluck rather loudly. She folded the paper fan she carried and began to whap John on the leg. She started yelling at him in Arabic, pointing at the tape recorder on his belt. I was a little worried and decided to leave the translating to our guide, who said, “She insists that is a camera, and she wants John to stop taking her picture.”
Several times during the day, policemen armed with submachine guns had asked John if he had a camera. Taking a person’s picture was strictly forbidden under an Islamic belief that only God could produce the human form. “Photographing women can be an extremely sensitive subject,” cautions a handout from the U.S. embassy. A Saudi edict issued in 1981 prevents photographing military sites, royal palaces, oil wells, and “impoverished places and anything which, if photographed, would degrade the image of the country or which, if photographed, might be intended for besmirchment or might have the connotation of backwardness.”
“Thank you very much,” I told the lady. “We’re outta here,” I hissed at John, pulling him away by the arm. I had visions of mutawa, the religious police, chasing us through the narrow alley and beating our legs with wooden staffs. A mutawa, which means volunteer, enforces the strict Islamic code, banging on a storefront if the owner doesn’t close five times a day for prayer and ensuring that women go properly covered.
We were a half block away, and I could still hear the lady cackling. We had stopped to talk with a blacksmith who was standing in a pit next to a roaring fire and pounding a knife blade on an anvil. Behind him, a retarded man kneeling on a pillow rocked back and forth to his own rhythm. Not everyone in Saudi Arabia, I realized, had a Mercedes with a cellular phone. Obviously, this was subject material for a prohibited photograph.
Suddenly the black-robed bedouin lady was on top of John, beating him on the head and shoulders with her fan, clucking away at the top of her voice. Ever the rational American, John tried to explain that his tape recorder was not a camera, taking out the cassette to show the lady. This only infuriated her more, and even our guide started to get nervous, taking us both by the arm and leading us to the safety of our air-conditioned car.
That was enough folklore for our guide, who proceeded to take us to water-purification plants, a sandy park with date palms and a few manicured patches of grass, and then a touristy set of caves spray-painted with Arabic graffiti, mostly of the “Ahmed was here” variety. “It’s like air-conditioning in these caves,” our guide said. To him and to many Saudis, the past was something that should be bulldozed to make room for the future. The past meant poverty, disease, and short lives. There wasn’t anything folkloric about it.
“What about the camels?” I reminded him.
“Too late for camels,” he said.
“No, no,” I protested. “Can’t we just try?”
“Why do you want to see camels?” he asked for the tenth time.
Finally he relented and directed the driver to pull into a maze of rickety stalls and corrals spread out on a sandy plain. I could smell my knobby-kneed friends from 200 yards. “You’ll have to ride one,” he told me, savoring the thought.
“What I would really like to do is talk with some Saudis who work here,” I said. “Just some typical camel herders.”
“What do you want to talk to them about?”
“About life,” I said, “about what they think about things, about the U.S. troops, the Gulf crisis.”
“They aren’t very talkative,” the guide said. But bowing to my insistence–I was the guest, after all, and Arab hospitality is a very real thing–we pulled up next to a barefoot shepherd standing over a dozen longhaired sheep, and the guide rolled down the window halfway. “What do you want to ask him?”
It dawned on me that the guide was afraid of the shepherd, embarrassed by him, or at least extremely uncomfortable asking him questions. I remembered the dates on the day’s newspaper one was September 1990 and the other was in the Islamic year 1411. Our guide lived in 1990, but the shepherd was in 1411, and I was not going to bridge the gap.
Reluctantly, the guide followed me out of the car. I shook hands with the shepherd. He gently took my hand in his rough one. A Saudi handshake is not a test of strength but a sign of friendship. In his other hand he carried an orange plastic tube he used for a staff. I made some small talk about his sheep and then asked about the American troops. “I think that is a political question,” the guide protested, declining to translate.
“Life is political,” I said. “Just ask.”
The shepherd went on for a couple of minutes, gesturing at the horizon, at his sheep, at me, and back to the horizon with much passion. I looked at the translator, thinking I was getting good stuff
“He says it’s a good thing.”
Simmering but accepting my defeat, I got back in the car. “There are your camels,” the guide said, pushing John and me back into the sun. “Go over there and see them. But be careful.”
They were tanking up at a cement trough, 30 or 40 of them in all their humpy splendor. One was sitting in the sand, rubbing himself to get clean. They all needed baths. Clumps of long dark hair were bunched on their sides. Camels are not nearly so grungy in the cartoons. I pushed John forward to tape their bellowing, but when one tried to eat his microphone, he fell over me trying to get back into the car. The guide was laughing so hard he forgot I was supposed to ride one.
Satisfied, we drove back up onto the road, kicking up a cloud of sand that covered the camels, the shepherd, and his flock.
I had covered the Pentagon long enough to know that when a Navy pilot tells you to prepare for some “slight discomfort,” you want to ratchet down your seat belt another few notches.
We were facing backward in the heavy metal seats of a windowless Navy Greyhound, a prop plane used for CODs–Carrier, On-board Deliveries. We had left a Saudi air base at 5 AM, and now at 8 AM we were over the Gulf of Oman approaching the U.S.S. Independence. I was sitting next to an AP reporter who had asked for an air-sickness bag even before we took off.
The pilot explained we would fly over the aircraft carrier, then turn sharply (“pull a few Gs”) to bleed off some air speed to land on the deck. Watch the crew chief for the signal, he said.
It was too loud to talk on the plane, but when the crew chief waved his hand in the air, grabbed his shoulder harness, and planted his feet firmly in front of him, the meaning was clear.
The little plane groaned when the pilot slammed it around, turning so hard that my stomach was pulled one way and my face went the other, prying open my mouth in a clownish smile. Reassuringly, I touched the arm of the AP reporter, who smiled weakly before bringing the bag to her mouth and filling it with breakfast. I tried to squeeze her arm to comfort her, but the warm, sour smell of vomit was like a fist shoved down my throat and stirring up my insides. Then BOOM, we hit the deck, and a chain rang out like a fishing line, catching us and stopping the plane so fast our heads snapped back.
We stepped down from the plane stiff legged, squinting like moles in the bright sun. On the deck the engine noise was so loud and the heat so intense that I was disoriented, and all I could see were the silver, oily undersides of jet fighters and attack planes. There was so much hot metal packed on the deck that the tail ends of jets were hanging over the edge of the carrier and the wings were folded up to make room. I felt the deck roll, and remembering we were at sea, I looked for the water. The gulf was deep blue, darker than the cloudless sky. A sailor took my arm and led me inside.
The average age of the 5,000 men on board was 20 years, six months. Just one year ago, the executive officer told me, their dads wouldn’t let them have the keys to the car. Now they are working on million-dollar aircraft and a billion-dollar ship. Not only are they working on the planes, using every available inch of space in the barnlike hangars, but they are throwing them off the decks with a steam-powered catapult that goes from zero to 180 mph in 2.5 seconds. The men, dressed in different-colored shirts depending on their jobs, scurry with ease around what they proudly call the “most dangerous three acres on earth.”
An A-6 attack-jet pilot led me up a ladder into the cockpit of his plane. I sat down behind the control panel, a bewildering array of switches, dials, and gauges. If shooting were to start, this plane would be used to bomb inside Iraq. The pilot said they already were studying the targets. Do you think about dropping bombs on Americans held hostage? we asked. Being a bomber is different from being a fighter pilot, who always goes up against another combatant, the pilot said. “You just go where they tell you,” he said. “You try not to think about it.” Some of the helicopters were painted with “Iraq or Bust” or “Just Camels” (a play on Operation Just Cause in Panama). Some had peace signs.
The men work 12-hour shifts. There is not much else to do, so they are always working, eating, or sleeping. And getting ready for war. Only the pilots would see combat, because the ship would remain far at sea. That is, of course, unless Saddam Hussein sent them an Exocet missile or a bomber loaded with chemical weapons. The ship is designed to be sealed off in case of chemical attack. Sprinklers would bathe the deck in water. Talking about the chemical threat made me remember to ask about my own chemical suit when we got back on shore.
It had been nearly three weeks, and we hadn’t been given the suits. Or that chem briefing.
I couldn’t help thinking how young the crew members were, and how professional. Some joined the Navy to learn a skill; one joined to make his father proud. Some joined to see the world. The youngest were born at the very end of our direct involvement in the Vietnam war. Not one member of the A-6 squadron has ever been in combat.
I climbed up to “Vulture’s Row,” the viewing area above the deck. One by one, the planes were hooked to the catapult. A man in a yellow shirt gave the “go” sign, the nose bobbed a bit, and the plane shot down the deck like a BB in a slingshot. Hurtling off the end of the ship, the plane would dip slightly below the deck until the jet engines lit up with yellow flames and pushed it off into the air. The young pilots, full of confidence, headed for the Persian Gulf–“doing a job,” they said–but I for one wondered what was waiting for them.
When the pool dissolved and there were more reporters than soldiers running around, I told my office I was ready to go home. My wife was resisting my collect phone calls, and I was exhausted. I kept telling my editors that nothing was going to happen for a while, but they were petrified war was going to break out while I was flying home. Finally, 26 days after boarding the C-141 at Andrews, I was on a British Airways flight bound for London. The wheels were barely up before I heard the happy sound of beer cans opening.
After all my worry about dying a grisly, blistered death in a chemical attack, I never got my chemical suit. Looking back, I think it probably was a clever move on the Pentagon’s part to, as they would say, degrade the threat. We were so obsessed with chemical warfare that our stories were scaring the troops. The Today show had run a segment on how to use a gas mask, so the arriving soldiers trembled and clutched the little chem-suit pouches as if they were security blankets.
But after a few days in-country, they abandoned their suits to their tents. And the only reason they kept their gas masks strapped to their belts was because they were ordered to.
I never even got my mask. The last I heard, it was locked up with my custom-tailored chem suit . . . somewhere in Saudi Arabia.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/David K. nelson.