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Operation Frustration

Sirens, sand, and prohibition--the stars in their courses are set against journalists in Kuwait.

2:25 PM, Mar 31, 2003 • By MATT LABASH
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Kuwait City

SINCE COMING TO KUWAIT, I, like many others, have turned into a gold-plated insomniac. If it's not the missile warning sirens keeping you awake, it's the Muslim calls to worship, beamed in via loudspeaker each morning at 4:15. After a while, the former stops being so nerve-wracking (no one has been killed, as of yet), though it does have a triple-espresso effect on the adrenal gland, making sustained slumber all but impossible. With the latter, it is suddenly obvious to me why so many Muslims around these parts live in a constant state of agitation. You'd be cranky too if you never slept in.

I dashed off an e-mail the other day to various family, friends, and detractors, telling them that the missile alerts appeared to have subsided. We hadn't had one in over 12 hours. The moment I sent it, the bell in my room sounded again. And again and again--8 times in one 24-hour period.

Much as you can tell the age of an oak tree by cutting it in half and counting its trunk rings, you can tell the reporters who've been at the Kuwait Hilton longest by their level of gas-mask fatigue. Upon first arriving, you live in a constant state of preparedness. You wear your JSList suit like a pair of pajamas, and keep your gas mask on your night-stand, in order to immediately locate it in the dark--if you're foolish enough to sleep with the lights off. Any sound--the wind whistling through your sliding glass door, the high whine of the golf cart wheels that the Indian room-service boys use to shuttle grub out to the chalets--fools you into hearing a warning siren.

But after 20 or 30 real alarms, the jadedness sets in. My near neighbor, Knight Ridder's Jeff Wilkinson, has gone so far as to disconnect his hallway alarm--it interferes with his television watching. Then there's Arash Ghadishah, an associate producer with ABC News. I first met Arash when a hotel siren sounded, warning of a possible incoming Scud, Seersucker, or Chinese Silkworm missile--whatever Saddam is using these days. "What does that mean?" I asked him, still so young and innocent. "Danger imminent, run for your life," Arash said, in a couldn't-be-bothered, Droopy Dog monotone. "Here's my card," he added, lifting his camcorder. "Do you mind if I film you while you put on your mask and run to the basement?"

I didn't mind him filming me, nor did I mind the forced gallows humor when everyone flocked to the shelter ("Where's Geraldo?" yelled one reporter. "Still in Tora Bora," replied another.). But I did mind when Arash inspected my gas mask, then started sniggering mercilessly. "Dude," he said, "your canister--it's only good against pepper spray."

ARASH has been here so long that the hotel's number is printed on his business cards. He holds down a bank of hotel rooms and suites for ABC staffers, and is such a fixture around here that some at the Hilton call him "The Mayor." He has consumed and grown sick of every item on every menu. ("I've eaten a herd of lamb," he says.) And he seems to know everything and everyone and everything that has been, is being, or will be done by everyone. Such a citizen he is of this place, that the other day during lunch, when he was singing along to a Muzak version of "Take a Look at Me Now," the cloying Phil Collins anthem, he stopped mid-chorus and said, "At least it's better than when the hotel had Enya on a three-day loop." There are less omniscient versions of Arash here. These hotel warriors/unembedded reporters do everything from stalking the halls barking into their cell phones, to working uncooperative Public Affairs Officers, to taking advantage of a purifying mud wrap at the Hiltonia Club spa--everything, that is, except getting a sustained look at the war they came here to cover.

They are foiled by closed borders and lack of access and just about every other impediment that nobody could have foreseen when we all crowed that our embedded colleagues would become footservants of the military. They would suffer restricted mobility and have filing and logistical problems while being forced to eat mystery meat patties out of MRE packets, unlike us, their freedom-loving, room-service-ordering colleagues. But now, reportorial consensus seems to be, the joke was on us. We are now every bit as dependent on the military for access, with one glaring difference--the military isn't inclined to give us much.