The Magazine

The Boys on the Bus to Iraq

The free press meets free people.

Apr 14, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 30 • By MATT LABASH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Safwan, Iraq

IT IS ESSENTIAL, during times of war, to be in good company. And to that end, fellowship prospects improved markedly last week around the Kuwait City Hilton. After 36 sleepless hours, I had just stolen three or four when my phone rang. "Hello Matt," said the voice on the other end. "It's Christopher Hitchens. I'm here. Did I wake you?" Yes you did, I told him, though I wasn't about to turn down a social call from one of our finest magazine scribblers and seekers of truth. "Good," he said. "I'll give you five minutes to put your teeth in, then I'll be right over."

You can tell how at ease a man is in the world from the scarcity of possessions he lugs around with him. When I came here, it was with large backpacks and overstuffed duffels, extraneous tote bags, pouches, and carry-ons. But Hitchens showed up at my door with nothing more than a firm handshake and a half-smoked pack of Rothman's. As he stood there, rumpled and slightly jetlagged in blue jeans and a black leather jacket, he looked sort of like the Fonz--if the Fonz had been a former British socialist who could pinch large swaths of Auden from memory.

We plopped down in the living room, and I asked him why he hadn't brought his gas mask, chem suit, and Kevlar. "I wore Kevlar in the Balkans once," he said, "but it made me feel like a counterfeit, so I ditched it." Despite this cavalier disregard for safety, I was so grateful for the company that I offered him a welcome-to-Kuwait shot of "Listerine" (as it is known by Kuwaiti customs officials). "I don't usually start this early," said Hitchens with feigned reluctance, "but holding yourself to a drinking schedule is always the first sign of alcoholism."

As I briefed Hitchens on the difficulties and dangers of getting into Iraq as an unembedded reporter, his eyes betrayed a wild impatience. "I have to get to Iraq," he told me. "You and everybody else," I replied, adding that the line started around the block. No, he said, I didn't understand. Vanity Fair had paid his freight, and he only had a short time. If his boots did not touch Iraqi soil, the mission would be a failure.

A mere 24 hours and two failed attempts later, we were on board a bus traveling with the Kuwait Red Crescent Society into southern Iraq on a humanitarian drop. We took our seats behind a Red Crescent volunteer and local journalist/fixer who asked that I change his name to Najeef. A Palestinian from Jerusalem and a graduate of Texas Southern University, Najeef offered pointers on how to identify the bad apples in Iraq. "The people who are for Saddam," he said, "I can tell from their physical appearance. The way they stand. The way they act." He said they throw the equivalent of gang signs--with a forefinger and middle finger extended, and with the thumb aiming out. Their facial expressions are also distinct, he said, pointing to his own and struggling to locate the correct English terminology. "Their glands are very sharp."

Najeef told us how wired he was in Kuwait. If we chose to hire him as a fixer, he could translate; he could get us into the yacht parties of decadent young Kuwaitis. He is close--personal friends--with a nephew of the Emir, who he said heads something called the Kuwait Bowling Federation. If we needed to get in any bowling while covering the war, Najeef was our man. He warned us that despite many forward-thinking Kuwaitis, like those in the Bowling Federation, there are others, like those in the Ministry of Moral Guidance and Public Relations, who are restrictive.

"They stop the boys from teasing the girls," he said. "They want you to go for prayer, to not listen to music--music is wicked. They don't want you to look at a girl or [have relations with] her." Though, Najeef reasoned, since the penalty in the afterlife is supposedly the same for each infraction, "it is better to [have relations with] her anyway." Generally speaking, Najeef said of the Islamic fundamentalists, "They kill all good things, all good activities. Live your life, let others live theirs. They live to f-- your life up. They don't like to see anybody happy."

OUR BUS CARAVAN rolled on down the Highway of Death--which earned its nickname during the Gulf War, after Americans obliterated fleeing Iraqis in what was widely considered a turkey shoot. As death-related interstates go, this is a fairly nice one: It is wide, comes with rumble strips, and has fewer potholes than your average Washington, D.C., thoroughfare. Along the way we passed long convoys of U.S. military vehicles: Humvees and bulldozers and flatbed trucks stacked with fresh lumber. We passed soldiers, many of them looking baked and caked from the months spent in this forbidding landscape of scorched, featureless flatness that could very well pass for West Texas.