Going to the Mat in Baghdad
When Halliburton’s reps hired me as a security contractor in Baghdad, I don’t think they knew I was a closeted hippie liberal. To ensure they never found out, I practiced my yoga in the privacy of my room, in the Baghdad Sheraton. It stayed a secret until my boss Jeff barged in one day while I was standing on my head in my underwear. To my surprise, Jeff was very supportive. He even made sure I had a few extra minutes in my schedule to practice. Jeff called it my “Turkey Time.” In Jeff’s book, everyone needed a little Turkey Time. Even in war.
Our job in Baghdad was to secure the Palestine and the Sheraton, two hotels that shared a parking lot and a view of the Tigris River. For many months I did my job happily. Some contractors were famously petulant for actually having to work for their six-figure paychecks. Not me. At least not in the beginning. In the beginning I was so infatuated with war that I jumped out of bed in the morning, ecstatic, fearless, ready to take on anything or anyone. Yoga had something to do with my positive energy. I began every day by standing on the edge of my mat, saying prayers. God bless my family. God bless my boy, Jake. God bless Cyndi, the painter I’m dating in North Carolina, and her gorgeous legs, may they wrap around me one day again. God bless America. God bless Iraq. Then I said the hard prayers. God bless Saddam Hussein. God bless Dick Cheney. I even tried to bless bin Laden a few times, but I was never that emancipated.
After prayers, I knocked out a few sun salutations, a twist or two, a headstand. Thirty minutes was enough to get the blood going, to gather the strength needed to handle the hordes of miserable wretches who would arrive that morning to petition Jeff and me for help.
I don’t recall how the pleading started. I suppose they considered us the only Americans who looked approachable. A few young soldiers hung around the hotels, low-ranking guys mostly. When they weren’t playing video games in their hotel rooms, they manned a tank in the middle of the parking lot. Naturally, the Iraqis steered clear of them. The soldiers were hard-faced grunts. Next to them, Jeff and I must have looked like angels. For one thing, we wore civvies. Most days I wore an Adidas track suit under my body armor, and a baseball cap instead of a Kevlar helmet. I had long hair and a beard. Jeff had a funny sidewise grin and a twinkle in his eye. His wife was Muslim, which was a hit with the locals.
Someone said we were the Donny and Marie Osmond of the occupation. I was definitely Marie. I mean, my heart broke every single day for those poor bastards. I had absolutely no defense against them. One day a young man in a ragged suit came looking for money to feed his starving family. I emptied my pockets and shoved the cash into his outstretched hands. It was nearly a hundred bucks, a month’s wages for him. I turned on my heel so I didn’t have to listen to his thanks. How could he understand the money meant nothing to me? My bank account was filling up so fast that I was embarrassed by my monthly statements.
I did my best to patch up all who arrived at the hotel wounded (even months after the invasion, there were too many injured to count). After I had doled out my personal supply of ibuprofen, 10 bottles in all, I lifted more from the Halliburton medic, along with bandages and tape and antiseptic. I spent my afternoons tending to shrapnel wounds and infected tear ducts, swollen joints and blistered feet. I performed all my treatments behind a dumpster in case a procurement officer happened to walk by and cite me for misappropriating U.S. government supplies. From the look of my new friends, everyone in Baghdad was in lousy shape.
To every request, I said yes. When a man with an honest face approached me (I’d never seen him before) and asked me to write a letter of recommendation so that he might immigrate to the United States, I whipped out my notebook on the spot:
To Whom It May Concern:
Omar is a wonderful person. His bravery in the face of danger has earned him the right to become a United States citizen. Please feel free to contact me anytime concerning this matter.
Matthew Becket Igoe
Security Coordinator, Team-RIO, Baghdad
One evening when I returned to the hotel, Ibrahim, the oil executive from Kuwait who was in Baghdad to advise the Americans on what to do with the Iraqi oil, was waiting for me. “I watched you today,” he said, beaming at me. “You are out in front. You are fearless. You talk to them like normal people. Believe me, I know these Iraqis. The way you are doing it is the only way.”
Fearless had a nice ring to it. I was goddamn fearless, alright. Fearless with the Iraqis, but also fearless when I ate a nice dinner in the air-conditioned restaurant before retiring to my room. Fearless when I took a hot shower. Fearless on my yoga mat in downward dog to relieve my back muscles. When all was right with the world, I hopped into bed, pulled up the covers and fearlessly thought, “This war’s as good as won. And we’re doing it our way—comfortably.”
The bombs began in August. First, it was the U.N. Everyone, including Jeff, thought it was an anomaly. “A couple of knuckleheads stirring up trouble. How bad can it be? Our troops are sleeping in Saddam’s palace and making number two in his gold-plated toilet.” To Jeff’s credit, he changed his mind the instant the Red Cross was bombed just a few blocks from our hotel. Within hours he contracted for three flatbed trucks full of concrete barriers and a crane to place the barriers in a wall around our hotels.
I was resistant. My version of the war ended elegantly, with me singing songs in the homes of my Iraqi friends, over a dinner of paprika chicken and tomato and cucumber salad, possibly marrying one of their daughters. “The wall is bad for morale,” I warned Jeff. “It’s bad for commerce. It’s bad for the Iraqis. It’s bad for…” Jeff was unmoved. When reasoning failed, I gnashed my teeth. I begged. I cajoled. I threatened to quit. I shed a few tears. All of which Jeff listened to patiently. When I was done, he told me to get my ass outside and build the wall.
It took about a month. With each concrete barrier the crane dropped in place, I grew a little harder inside. With each strand of razor wire, my tongue sharpened. With each new Iraqi I trained to guard the wall, I put my own guard up a little higher. Little by little, I stopped doing yoga. I rolled out of bed on the other side, just so I could avoid looking at the mat on the floor, unused, collecting dirt and grime.
Yoga kept me sane; I abandoned sanity. Yoga granted me empathy; I lost interest in my fellow man. I set myself a course of the strictest apathy. I might have stayed numb forever if not for Ahmed, my housekeeper.
It’s late October. I wake up and ignore my yoga mat as I’ve done now for weeks, and make my way outside to the wall. The hot breeze off the Tigris is swampy and scented with eucalyptus. The papyrus rustle along the riverbank. Our wall is well lit. Mohammed, the captain of the guard, smiles when he sees me. He has a clean-shaven face, so I’ve come to trust him more than the others. There’s not a drop of sweat on his brow. He looks cool as a cucumber in his leather biker jacket. With a stained rag, he cleans out a baby-blue plastic teacup and pours a glass of hot chai. He passes the chai to me with the same hand holding his lit cigarette.
“Sabah al khair,” he says.
“Sabah al noor,” I reply.
We raise our glasses slightly. The other guards walk over, AK-47s dangling from their hands by the pistol grips. I bite my tongue. Mohammed pours chai for the others. We drink silently, watching the shrubs that line the wall, where a half-dozen little pairs of feet are sticking out from under the branches. Street kids sleep under the shrubs at night. They are all boys (there’s no good reason I can think of for why there aren’t any girls on the street—only bad reasons). The street kids would prefer to sleep past dawn, of course, as would any child, but it’s hard to get comfortable when your mattress is made of dirt and your ceiling is the open sky and your country’s a bloody scab that’s been parceled and plundered and passed from army to army until, somehow, the shrubs the boys sleep under belong to me.
Fortunately for them, the shrubs lie inside the wall. Outside the wall has become a jungle at night. Still, it isn’t easy to convince the guards to allow the kids to sleep under the shrubs.
“These boys are no good glue-sniffers,” Mohammed says, speaking for the rest of the guards. “Last night they were fighting each other over a pocket radio. Let them sleep in the reeds by the river.”
I kind of agree with him, but I don’t appreciate his tone.
“You’ll fucking let them sleep under my shrubs,” I say. “Or I’ll find someone else to guard my fucking wall.”
The first kid to wake up is Sami. He sits up and rubs the grit from his eyes and smiles bashfully at me. A few more drag themselves out from under the branches and sit on the curb. Every day our garden of sleeping angels grows by ones and twos. A new boy with big brown eyes and all his teeth crawls out from under a shrub. He’s wearing a brown T-shirt with a faded logo and old cotton track pants and no shoes, not even sandals. He looks around, baffled. In his dreams, he was in his own bed, breathing the familiar smells of home; his mother was making breakfast; his father was calling out the window to a neighbor; a light mist surrounded them. Where are they now? The mist lifts, leaving our crummy world behind. The little guy tugs at an ear. When he can deny it no longer, he rests his little head in his soiled hands and weeps.
Sami is a veteran of sleeping in the streets. He gives the new boy a cuff on the cheek to knock it off. The boy only weeps louder. Sami switches tactics, making funny faces and dancing about, scratching his armpits like a monkey. After a moment, the kid looks up. A brave smile breaks through. He starts to giggle, tentatively at first. The other kids join in. In a moment we’re all howling with laughter. I’m laughing louder than anyone. The guards congratulate Sami for being such a good boy. I give Sami a dollar. Not a single one of us is happy about the situation, but we know enough to laugh anyway.
Around noon I leave the wall and walk back to my room. All I want to do is lie on the bed and stare at the ceiling. When I get to my room, the door is propped open with a trashcan. Ahmed’s inside humming to himself. Usually, I try to avoid him when he’s cleaning. If we’re in the room together for any period of time, I obsess over little things, like how he uses dime-store perfume to camouflage intransigent odors. Or how he swishes the dirt around on the bathroom floor with a filthy mop without bothering to sweep the floor first. But the most painful thing about Ahmed is the little white apron he wears over his slacks and pressed yellow dress shirt. The apron is expensive. It accentuates his soft hands and large, mushy belly. He’s too well fed, in my opinion. Whenever I see him, I remember the advice of a woman who survived the Holocaust.
“In a war,” she said, “never trust the fat ones, or the ones with nice clothes.”
Ahmed smiles when he sees me standing at the door. It’s a wonderful achievement, his smile. From 10 feet away, the man can steal your soul. When he smiles, you automatically pat down your pockets to make sure your wallet is still there. When his plump, trembling lips turn upward, they reveal a black hole beyond which nothing positive can escape. Still, despite the loathing he inspires, I feel bad for him. He was surely someone important during Saddam’s time. I imagine him to be some kind of middle manager. Not the guy who breaks the kneecaps, but the guy who manages the guy who breaks the kneecaps. Now Ahmed cleans toilets for the enemy. That’s got to hurt.
“Don’t mind me,” I say.
I pull off my body armor, dump it on a chair, and decide the best place to hide-out is on the balcony. As I slide open the glass door, I see the yoga mat lying on the floor in the same place it’s been for months. Why not give it a try? Leaving my boots on, I do a downward dog, closing my eyes, really getting into it, letting the muscles relax, the hips rise, the ankles sink to the ground.
The blissful feeling ends when I’m struck by a sensation of impending doom. My serenity is shredded. My knees go wobbly. The cloying scent of Polo cologne wafts over me like a mustard gas attack. I open my eyes. Ahmed is standing next to me and he’s horrified. Immediately I know what the problem is: Ahmed thinks I’m standing on a Muslim prayer mat, not a yoga mat. It’s understandable. He’s been isolated in Iraq and has no concept of yoga. In his mind, the only reason a man has a mat is to pray to Allah. And he’s horrified because my boots are touching the mat, a big no-no in Islam.
“You’ve got it wrong,” I say, standing up. “No Islam. Yoga.”
Ahmed thinks I’m the one who’s got it wrong. He pushes me gently off the mat and picks it up. He lays the mat on the bed and pulls out his bottle of industrial cleaner and sprays it, soaking my bedspread along the way. As he scrubs the mat, he rambles on and on in Arabic, every other word “Allah” or “Mohammed.” No doubt he was explaining to me the Five Pillars of Islam, the Hajj, the Sunni-Shia rift, and anything pertinent to my budding interest in becoming Muslim.
When he’s done cleaning, I thank him, lay the mat back on the ground and step on the mat with my boots.
I fold over at the waist, place my hands on the ground, jump my feet back until my boots land at the far end of the mat, do a push up, and then jump back to my position at the front of the mat.
“You see? Yoga. No Islam. Understand?”
“Laaaaaaaaa!” Ahmed screams, launching his spongy shoulder into my ribs. I stumble off balance. Ahmed grabs the mat and bolts for the door with the mat dragging behind him. I take off after him and stomp a foot on the mat, stopping him short.
We stare at each other, neither one of us will give up the fight. Strangely, I’m not upset at Ahmed for causing a scene over the yoga mat. But I’m pretty ticked off that he’d clean the yoga mat so well but leave my room looking like shit. The piles of dirty, threadbare towels he refolded instead of stocking up with clean towels; the dust and dirt he swept under the bed; the personal items, small but valuable, that went missing from my drawers.
“Ahmed,” I say, still panting. “You’re fired.”
By this time, a number of people from the floor have gathered to watch the show. Ibrahim, who occupies the room two doors down from me, takes it upon himself to translate my words into Arabic. When Ibrahim is finished telling Ahmed he’s fired, Ahmed points his finger at me and delivers a short monologue, full of righteous piss and vinegar. He throws his apron on the ground and leaves. I watch him go.
“What did he say?”
Ibrahim looks delighted.
“Very bad things, I’m afraid. Ahmed said very bad things. I would not let him back inside the wall, if I were you. I know these Iraqis. They must be ruled with an iron fist.”
The next morning I started doing yoga again. I’m not sure why. Quite possibly to spite Ahmed. The mat still stank of cleanser, so I moved to the roof of the hotel for a little fresh air. A new perspective. From the top of the Sheraton you could see most of Baghdad. The Green Zone on the far side of the Tigris, sprawled out under the rising sun. The Tigris twisting sluggishly through the city like a snake in agony. The signs of war everywhere. Really great scenery for yoga! Better than a sandy beach. I started with sun salutations. A few minutes into it I was panting like a dog, but I kept at it.
Down, back, and up. Each time I came to my feet again, the destroyed landscape of Baghdad stared back at me. Down, back, up. Baghdad. Down, back, up. War. Down, back, up again until the sweat leaked through my skin. Down, back, up. Baghdad. Down, back, up. War. Down, back, up. Time passed, I don’t know exactly how long. Down, back, up. Down, back up…until I went down, back, and up, only to find myself staring eye-to-eye with a pair of Kiowa attack helicopters rising up over the edge of the hotel roof.
In a mad rush of wind and noise, we gawked at each other, me on my yoga mat in my underwear, the soldiers hovering 20 stories up in their birds with guns aimed at me. What do you do in a situation like that? Dive for cover? Raise your hands and surrender? Both reactions have their merits. What doesn’t have merit is freezing in place with my hands pressed together as if I were planning on finishing my yoga practice.
“You’re a dick, Matty!” I thought, kicking myself. “These guys think you’re Al Qaeda, on the roof to make mischief.”
Slowly, I dropped my hands to my sides. The vociferous thumping of rotors beat the air. I waited for them to make the next move. A dozen yards separated us. Any moment they’d recognize me for a good guy and give me a friendly wave, as countrymen should during a chance meeting in a faraway land.
The gunner on the left put down his weapon. He pulled off his goggles and to my everlasting dismay, he shook his head at me in utter disgust. I mean, he was revolted at the sight of me. At that moment, he might have shot me out of pure bitchiness, just to remove someone who he thought insulted soldiers everywhere by bringing a yoga mat to war. I looked to the other faces and they too were disgusted. One guy was even laughing! I was too stunned to move. In a moment, the helicopters flew away, quick as they’d come. A sudden, foolish rage hit me.
“You fucking pricks!” I screamed at the helicopters as they buzzed off like a pair of mosquitos, over the rooftops of Baghdad. The embarrassment of it was overwhelming. I wasn’t their countryman at all, just some fucking kook on the roof.
I would have shouted more but my body was shaking. I bent over and gripped my knees to balance myself. It was no good. The tremors overtook my body. The sheaths of my nerves whittled away, leaving nothing to coordinate my upright position. I knelt down on the yoga mat and rolled over on my back, which coincidentally is a yoga position called savasana, the corpse pose, which was perfect because I felt like I was dying.
First came the sobs, wet, heaving sob after sob, weeping as only a broken man can weep, pathetically and miserably and uncontrollably all at once. If you ever see a man cry like that, don’t lend a kind word to him. Don’t offer your shoulder to weep upon. The only favor you can do is walk away. Act as if you never saw him. That kind of despair is the rock you cling to for dear life—or dash yourself to pieces upon. If you survive, you can build your life on that rock. But if the rock fractures and splits, if it rolls off the roof of the Baghdad Sheraton and tumbles into the Tigris and sinks to the bottom with the other rotten corpses, then you’re lost and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it.
When the shaking stopped, my mind went terribly still, thoughtless, without any movement, any worries, any needs, any desires. Beyond the din of the city, I could still hear the helicopters in the distance. I closed my eyes against the blue sky. The bright sun silhouetted the blood vessels in my eyelids. I felt my resistance collapse utterly and I fell inside myself, and fell and fell for what seemed like forever, to the very center of my being where I was embraced by vessels of amber light, nourishing, titillating, surging light that surrounded me. The light tentacled outward in branches of pure energy extending from my stomach, branches of energy that gathered me up and together we shot down through the hotel beneath me, through concrete as if it were butter, through animate and inanimate objects alike, story by story, passing through every hotel room, down the walls and through windows and out into the streets of Baghdad, spreading swiftly, accelerating in every direction, a web of sentient luminance, absolutely indifferent to good and evil, passing by every living thing in that forsaken city, every shrub, every woman, man, donkey, goat, insect. Babies crying in cribs and their mothers in robes rushing to comfort them; taxi drivers queuing for their daily gasoline ration; insurgents building bombs in the basements of faraway homes; fathers and sons saying their morning prayers; American soldiers peering over the edges of sandbags, rubbing their eyes and daydreaming about women and cold beer.
I saw Bedouins at the city’s edge and politicians at the center. I saw Jeff. I saw Mohammed. I saw Sami. Fatima. John. Cowboy. Elizabeth. Curt. Al. Faster the scenes came. Everybody in Baghdad appeared to me, each bent on something terribly, beautifully, rapturously alive.
There was no difference between occupier and occupied. Between the killer and the dead. Between what was done, what was this very moment, or what was inevitably yet to come.
Abruptly, I was on the roof again, lying on my back, staring up at the sky, the barest wisps of clouds passing overhead. The vision, or whatever the hell it was, was over. But I wasn’t ready for it to stop. Someone was missing—Ahmed the Housekeeper.
Why hadn’t I seen him in my cosmic trip through Baghdad? Was he at home, plotting to kill me? Was he curled up in a ball, crying at his fall from grace? Or was he lying on a street bench, staring at the sky, at peace because he was finally free? Or didn’t I see him because he no longer mattered? Or because Iraq was no longer my war? I laughed aloud. Goddamn! It’s no longer my war! For a brief, glorious instant, the weight of the war was lifted from my shoulders and I was as light as a feather, light as branches of light, light as an angel in flight.
And then, for the first time since I’d arrived in Baghdad, I became very, very afraid.