Emotionally bereft, I focus on the technical aspects of traveling into Kuwait City, Kuwait, with several civilian-clothed soldiers on a contract bus driven by a Third Country National who doesn’t know the area well, either. The marketplace or the Souk Mulbariak, downtown, is located near the Sharq Mall close to the Gulf. Wild and woolly, it is a place of many languages, incense, and the delicious aroma of chicken-on-a stick. After being color deprived for almost three months, the silk fabrics, even polyesters, deliciously coaxed me as they waved to me on the open market Gulf winds whispering, “buy me; take me to your home and wear me.” It was a daunting task during the 2004 Operation Iraqi Freedom deployment: planning and implementing a visit into and out of the market place in Kuwait City, Kuwait. Our only experience with the Souk would be zigging and zagging into the city where the only type of security that existed would be our own. There were no YouTube how-to videos to refer to on security while at war during this time.
Walking into this culturally enriched area after living in a very tight and secure community at Camp Arifijan, Kuwait, took more discipline than naturally necessary. The adrenaline pumped through my veins as I created pre-combat inspection checklists to drill through and prepare us in the event our bus or our American naïveté got in the way of noticing the warning signs of a planted Improvised Explosive Device (IED) or an angry group of people who did not want us there. The first Battle of Fallujah, Iraq, early in the month of April, found everyone a bit jittery, and there was discussion about shutting down visits to the Souk—too risky at the time—or was it? High security measures in place, terrorist threats, kidnappings, beheadings, it ran the gamut. I had many diverse duties, this task: implementing morale, welfare, and recreation (MWR) even for unit members.
During wartime, MWR offers troops time and space to decompress from intense combat stress while being “sitting ducks,” in an imminent danger and combat zone. The risks are high and the management—rules of engagement—that go into MWR planning and implementation during war made my heart beat extra fast. As an example, in general, what people don’t realize is those overseas USO events viewed on television in the safety of the home, in the U.S.—they happen because soldiers secure the area so that other soldiers can “decompress.” In Kuwait City, we implemented very similar security operation measures while traveling by bus into the Middle Eastern market place to “enjoy” a few moments of “freedom,” during war. It is amazing what we perceive to be free, even “pretend freedom.” In this case it was to gain some retail therapy, interact with civilians, and find that nugget of being human.
While being in charge of security, transportation, and participating in an MWR outing, I met a woman selling scarves. I assumed she was Kuwaiti, but it is possible she was from India, Pakistan, or another country.
I was greatly intrigued by her as we stood there in the open marketplace, surrounded by colorful textiles of emerald green, ruby red, midnight blue and every other brilliant color. Color in the desert is sparse and as service members we don the same desert monochromatic uniforms each day. I craved color.
The scent of the warm rotisserie chicken cooked Shawarma (its history dating back to the Ottoman Empire), a delicious, greasy dish met my nostrils and never left that day. And the sounds: a humming activity of bartering circulated through the open space.
I studied her face as she did mine searching for a single frequency to communicate. Before me was a delicate scarf for sale; I picked it up thinking this would be perfect for Mom. I placed it on my head and she assisted in wrapping it around my shoulders, her delicate touch . . . tears dampened my skin. Looking into her eyes, all vigilance faded away. Deeply comforted, somehow, I saw my mother in her. Maybe it was how she wore her scarf (or burka) on her head that reminded me of how Mom wore scarves, mainly to keep her hair in place and head and ears warm in the brisk winds of the West.
Through gestures and smiles, I requested a photograph together—the woman nodded, yes. This, for me, was an incredibly beautiful moment. There I was in an Arab world far different from my own, and this woman, discouraged from having a photo taken, as it is considered a graven image by her people and religion, allowed a photo. She took considerable risk. When we embraced, there was an unspoken wisdom that only people who take considerable risk when reaching out to the other can know. And, for one brief, tender moment I felt the sensation of my mother cradling me in her arms.
This experience is one of my most treasured moments of the year-long deployment, and neither the woman nor I ended up dead that day.