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.
As a result, every day, we trek down to The Board, hoping to see an announcement posted that the military will run us out on day-trips to the burning oilfields of Rumeila or the mined ports of Umm Qasr. This way, we can dateline from Iraq, and show our editors we're in the game. To see your name on the board is the ultimate desire--it's very Glengarry Glen Ross. But the best trips, of course, rarely make it to the board--the limited slots for each trip getting doled out in advance by a system so mysterious and arbitrary, it's hard for us to even be cutthroat about it. The board sits outside the press desk at the Hilton, and "the press desk" is itself a bit of a misnomer, since that would leave one with the impression that there is a desk, staffed by helpful public affairs officers who are just sitting out in the open, handling press inquiries as they come. But in fact, as one colleague nicely distilled it, "You may not simply go to the press desk and ask a question of a PAO so that they can tell you they can't help you. You must first call to make an appointment to arrange to have a PAO come out and meet you at the press desk so that they can then tell you that they can't help you."
Perhaps we shouldn't be too hard on the PAOs for their lack of gentle care and regular feeding--there is, after all, a war on. While our troops and embedded colleagues have to face sleeping in fighting holes or with their heads clanging off the ceilings of Abrams tanks, while they must face dwindling rations, harsh elements, and hostile citizens--not to mention shrapnel, bullets, and suicide bombers--we rear echelon types also have the worries that come from setting up shop in a restrictive Muslim country. "I've been here two months," grouses one prominent reporter, "and I still can't figure out how to get around the Internet-porn filter."
THE FEMALE PROBLEM is a difficult one for habitually overstimulated American and British reporters. There seems to be a dearth of local talent--not because Kuwaiti women aren't attractive, just because you can't find them. "Where are they?" I asked one television reporter. "Kuwait is kind of like L.A.," he explained, "There's lots of palm trees, and nobody walks anywhere. But there aren't any Kuwaiti women. They stay in their homes, they stay in their Mercedes, or they stay in their Mercedes on their way to each others' homes."
Consequently, some have turned to other avenues. One reporter of my acquaintance has the entire broadcasting schedule of Fashion TV memorized. "The lingerie show comes on at 2 a.m.," he confides. "It takes me at least an hour to cool down after that." Likewise, since many of us are glued to non-stop news coverage when we're not reporting, we have taken to evaluating the newsbunny talent. General consensus seems to be that we want BBC World's Mishal Husain to be our queen. She is a stone-cold hottie, who's quick on her feet. Plus, she comes off as vaguely anti-American, presenting something of a challenge. "I'd like to make her part of my coalition of the willing," says one lusty scribe.
The booze situation is equally dire. Since Kuwait doesn't permit alcohol consumption, there is not a single Bangladeshi busboy or bellhop at our hotel that hasn't been hit up for black market connections, mostly to no avail. Reporters have gotten rather resourceful. Knight Ridder's Wilkinson knows of a colleague who flew in from Bahrain, transporting four quarts of dark rum in a camp-shower bag. "For a week," he says, "his room smelled like a frat-house." Another print jockey was driven to hit up a Lebanese Christian friend for a white-lightning type concoction that is used in their religious rituals. So desperate are people on the ground here, that it is only a matter of time before some wretch pulls a full Kitty Dukakis, and downs a bottle of nail-polish remover or cleaning solvent. It makes me feel sorry for my colleagues--not sorry enough to share my "Listerine"--but sorry, nonetheless.
WITH ALL THIS PRIVATION, many media types around here don't have the warm'n'fuzzies for our host nation. As one says, referring to Kuwait's huge population of foreign nationals, "The joke around here is that the hardest thing to find in Kuwait is a Kuwaiti. When Iraq invaded in 1990, two-thirds of them weren't here. They were out summering in the States. They wanted their country back--but not 'til spring."
But personally, I've found them to be the most helpful. The Kuwaiti Ministry of Information office maintains a space right next to their British and American public affairs counterparts at our hotel. True, they can be heavy-handed at times. One text message, blasted out on reporters' cells, read "To avoid rumors, listen to the news coming from official sources." But they are generally friendlier, more chatty, and will, on occasion, actually inconvenience themselves on your behalf. When I lost my passport--a sin almost as grievous as trying to bed the emir's wife--it was the Ministry's sweetheart, Sarah Al-Deyyain, who helped me find it. "Your passport," she said, sympathetically, with a polite dose of understatement, "is not a good thing to lose."
When reporting access is denied to various sites, as it invariably is every day, the daisy chain of blame basically goes as such: The Kuwaitis blame their former masters, the British. The British blame their current masters, the Americans. And the Americans blame their hosts, the Kuwaitis. If it weren't so frustrating, it would be fun to watch.
But as a result, we are often forced to make our own way. Last week, after an unknown type of missile landed in the Persian Gulf about two miles from our hotel, shattering the windows of several carpet stores, Arash and I headed down to the site. Cruising the streets of a down-at-the-heels neighborhood called Fahaheel that looks like inner-city Detroit with sand, we were searching for the affected building. But with so many others in disrepair, Arash wondered, "How can we tell?" Finally, we found two carpet stores, nestled into an area replete with all sorts of other authentic Kuwaiti merchants such as Casio, McDonald's, and Konica Photo Express. The sidewalk was littered with thousands of glass shards--the reverberations from the impact on the water having blown out the stores' windows--but nobody had been injured.
The stores' owners and employees were scurrying about, already busy with reconstruction. The locals generally seem to take these things in stride. One of the store owners even offered me a shattered-glass discount on some of his stock. I asked one employee of the Khamsin Carpets Co.--an Iranian named Reza--if this missile-strike scared him. He held up his finger and thumb about an inch apart. "Leeeeetle," he said, "no beeeeg." At this point, a squad car pulled into the parking lot. Two Kuwaiti policeman got out. One was fat, one was thin. One was short, the other tall. One had pink-tinted sunglasses, the other blue. Together, in their ill-fitting uniforms, they looked like two escaped dancers from some leather-bar revue.
The tall thin one with the blue shades was taking photographs of the damaged stores. I'm uncertain whether his purpose was investigative, or simply to get a souvenir. As we approached him, his voice and demeanor were friendly, though his hand dropped to his revolver. We asked if he knew any details about the strike, which as of a day later, still had not been fully illuminated by either the Americans or the Kuwaitis. "Sorry, I can't give you anything," the cop said. "We don't want the people to be afraid, you know."
We crossed the street and went over to the fish market, which would actually have seemed closer to the strike, since it sits directly against the Persian Gulf. Why it's called the fish market is unclear. It certainly smelled of fish, but there weren't any there, and if I know my fish, there's always something in season. Instead, there were lots of fruit and vegetables, cigarette butts strewn on the floor, and smiling pictures of the emir. The locals were giving us the suspicious eye--Arash, a little less so, since he is an Iranian-American whose family fled Tehran in 1979. Nevertheless, we bulled our way back to a glassed-off anteroom overlooking the Gulf, searching for signs of destruction. A small hole was evident in the glass, from which radiated a long crack. But an employee told us it wasn't from the missile, it was just a run-of-the-mill bullet hole. What a relief.
Here in the rear, that is the mood in a nut. It's not about danger, as it is for the forward troops and reporters--but the promise of danger. As we came back to the hotel, getting out of our car and running through the mandatory checkpoint/metal detector, the gentleman in front of me reached into his pocket, pulled out a knife that looked to have about an 8-inch blade, set it on the table, walked through, picked it up, put it back in his pocket, and went on his merry way. I asked Kuwaiti security if that didn't qualify as a weapon. The Kuwaiti soldier shook his head no. The knife could only slice, he said, it was too small to sever a limb. Such a cavalier attitude can be infectious. When I first got here, I was warned to check under the hood of my car every time I used it for possible car bombs, and I generally complied. But realizing that I spend so little time under the hood of a car, that I wouldn't be able to tell an explosive device from say, the muffler--I have reverted to my former, less vigilant system: saying a prayer before turning the ignition.
WHILE I HAVE thus far given the impression that military access for unembedded reporters is nearly nonexistent, this is not always the case. Last week, I got a rare unsolicited phone call from a friendly American PAO. She told me that as our boys are out there, actually doing it, fighting and scrapping and in some instances, dying, "The mail still needs to be delivered, and we'll show you how it's done." She said this with the you-really-owe-me-for-this-one tone that would suggest she was sending me on a covert mission with Delta Force, instead of on a field trip to the post office.
It's the kind of trip that you feel silly even bringing your Kevlar on, so I didn't. But I was so bored I was eager to go. As I sat behind the wheel of my Mitsubishi Pajero, lined up behind the Hummer that was leading our convoy to the Subhan Logistical Joint Mail Distribution Terminal--a Kuwaiti logistics base about a half an hour from our hotel--I was paired up with a photographer from AFP, or, as he says when he wants to get better access, "from AP."
As he climbed into the shotgun side, he called his editor: "Yeah, I drove as slow as I could. But I got here in time anyway. I'm going to the post office. There's going to be some really huge postal news." This shooter had just come to town and was looking at a bit of a quandary. Contemplating a unilateral run into Iraq, he was faced with hooking up with a rookie reporter. "I might be having to tie his shoes," he worried. Or, he could partner with a crazy Frenchman from his news agency, whose nickname is "The Scarf," because he actually wears one. "He looks like Peter O'Toole in the Land of Turkish Tea," said my carpool mate.
The photographer said that one of his agency's cars had been t-boned by some crazy Kuwaiti driver the day before. But upon seeing the vehicle, all The Scarf wanted to know was "Is zis my car? Let's go "--intending to immediately sneak past the checkpoints into Iraq. "Don't you think we should make sure there's no damage first?" protested the shooter.
Out at the postal station, we are briefed by a brigadier general. He tells us how much mail they sort a day, how many Conex's and trucks are required to do so. He tells us about the "great Americans" who work 12-hour shifts doing the sorting. "I know it sounds hokey," he says, "but these guys deliver." The assembled media, so unaccustomed to encountering a senior officer who is willing to sit and answer all their questions, asked some really stupid ones. A Spanish television reporter wanted to know, "What do people send in packages, usually?" Another one asked, "Which unit gets the most letters?"
Off to the side, Chief Warrant Officer Richard Mangino, a likable Marine who chomps on a cigar that he says is Honduran, but that we both know is Cuban, confides to a few of us, "It's very hard to get you guys on here, because the Kuwaitis didn't want to do it." "I didn't want them to either," says my AFP chum.
Inside the facility, I sidle up to Specialist Michael Sims, from Texarkana, Arkansas, and Specialist Justin Bodine, from Riverton, Illinois, working the mail line. I ask them what are some of the more offbeat things they see come through. "Panties and porn," says Sims. "Don't the Kuwaitis have rules against that?" I ask. "They do against porn," says Bodine. "I don't know about panties--I'd like to think they wear those." They also encounter bottles of forbidden hooch, which frequently break in their packages. "Sometimes," says Sims, "we put it in front of the fans, so the fumes will wash over the building." "If you can't drink it," adds Bodine, "you might as well smell it."
Desperate times call for desperate measures, it seems. Though they work in the mail facility, they are, like most every other soldier I encounter, starved for news of the war, which they barely get wind of thanks to lack of television and Internet access. About all they have, I'm told, is five-day-old Stars and Stripes. Sims has been married for four months, and has been here for two of them. He looks a little green-around-the-gills with homesickness, and he worries about his new wife, because he knows that she's worried. The other day, on a rare cell phone call with her, the missile siren sounded. "I said, 'Hey I got to go, another Scud attack,'" says Sims. "She was hysterical." "And you can't keep talking on the phone through your mask," adds Bodine. I ask the guys how long they think this war is going to last. "I don't know," says Sims, "I just want to go home."
On my way out of the facility I bump into a kinetic Stars and Stripes reporter, David Josar. He is shaking his head in sympathy. "These guys are bored out of their minds," he says, though I'm not clear on whether he's talking about the soldiers or the reporters. "In Afghanistan," he continues, "Everybody did the mail story. It's corny--but it's important to them. The soldiers are out here, but nobody knows what's going on." Imagine that, I say.
It's a feeling harbored by nearly every reporter in Kuwait who is looking for some sort of adventure, which they sometimes find in the unlikeliest places. Josar tells me that just the other night, while leaving the Hilton, he fell into one of its many decorative feng shui pools. "I went in up to my waist," he says. "There was no lights. There was no fence. It's actually pretty dangerous."
Coming Next: Part II: Run For The Border/Adventures With Christopher Hitchens, the Unembedded Make Their Stand
Matt Labash is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.