The past two days were long, hectic hours, but they began well enough--to the glorious sound of sweet, flowing water. No matter that it was ice cold, I plunged in with abandon and washed my hair and most of my body for the first time in days. The soot and oil ran thick in the drain, and after it was gone I filled the tub with a two-day supply.1 (A wise precaution, it turned out, in light of subsequent events.) Meanwhile, my pitcher of shaving water was boiling over a sterno can, so I luxuriated in a hot shave. I celebrated the occasion with a change of clean clothes, and rode in splendor in an electrically powered elevator to the hotel lobby, and as I stepped out a fellow with a British accent stopped me dead in my tracks.
"Pardon me," he asked, "but where do I take breakfast here in the hotel?"
I blinked and stared; where had this guy come from, and how could he show up without knowing he had to bring his own food? I stammered that there weren't any restaurants open anywhere in town, and he answered, "Oh."
"That day was spent
At the head of the line all was pandemonium with the classic images of arguing, shoving, pleading and gesticulating. Jane, as hard-charging as ever, just plowed right in, and I was hard-pressed to keep up in my tangle of mic cables.2 Though I speak no Arabic, I certainly understood the oft-spoken phrase "CNN." We sought out English speakers, and others found us. Many complained of the postwar conditions, but were equally reluctant to blame anyone, especially a government that graciously allows them to stay in its borders.3 In the end we saw much and learned little more than we knew when we started: the country is still in a shambles.
As zahahfi, we took our place in the front of the gas line, and our driver filled the Land Cruiser while Mark Dulmage shot his stand-up. He's a no-nonsense ex-Marine, now heading the Rome bureau. Intentional or not, his stand-up was an ironic inside joke; he reported with straight face that life in Kuwait is now spent in line, except for the privileged few who go first everywhere.
Thursday was my day to go on the double shift, teching by day and editing by night. After doing the bread line piece, I rounded out the evening with a wrap-up of the big event of the day: the return of the Emir of Kuwait. His reception, though full of pomp and ceremony, was attended by what could be considered a sparse crowd. Except for bodyguards and journalists. The stories by the returning crews made it sound like a donnybrook, and the footage would seem to bear this out. But beyond the hardcore press corps, no one else seems to want him back.
Friday we left early, in search of adventure up on the Iraq border. Our reporter this time was Richard Blystone, who works in London. He arrived in town the day after I did and was anxious for a look around, so I was happy to be along for the ride. As we headed north out of the city, the modern trappings fell away alongside the highway, and the true desert setting emerged. More sand, with a type of sagebrush sparsely scattered about. I noticed a few adobe-like houses under what few trees grew in the barren ground. Indeed, the scene was very reminiscent of the Texas-Mexico border along the Rio Grande. Except for the headgear and flowing robes, the farmers and herders could easily pass for Mexican peons.
"...the ragtag Iraqi retreat
At the top of the ridge, another burning oil field. It was Blystone's first view of these fires, so we stopped to shoot some tape. Then we finally hit the border, through the bombed-out village of Safwan and past the refugees living in Red Cross tents. In the streets young children block the road, pointing to their mouths with one hand and reaching out with the other in pleas for food. Then came the end of the road-at least for Americans who value their safety. A couple of tanks and armored cars formed a checkpoint bustling with activity. So here we went to work.
We spent four hours at the checkpoint, shooting almost two hours of tape. It was good stuff, only too much of it. Once we got back, Dick wrote his script--or rather two of them. First, a short essay on the beauty and horror of the oil fires. That was done after dinner. Then the hard part--cutting the border story into a concise report. This proved more of a problem. The piece ran three and a half minutes, and took 3 hours to edit. By 3 a.m. I was bleary-eyed and frustrated--too much good stuff and none of it fitting. I kept a producer and engineer up patiently biding their time while I agonized over two-second shots. There is no way to be pleased with a piece like that even after you get it done. But by 3:30 I called it quits and staggered off to bed--up 17 flights of darkened stairs.
Saturday morning I slept in, got up and did my laundry with my carefully hoarded bathtub supply of water. I went on the balcony to hang things out to dry, and discovered a magnificent scene--bright blue skies and clear aqua seas. It turned out to be a lovely day all around, hanging out in the bureau with nothing to do. A long phone call home helped relieve some homesickness, and in the afternoon the supply truck arrived--our first load of food and water since the Saudi border was closed on Wednesday. Among the provisions, fresh steaks, charcoal and barbecue grills. Tonight is the eve of Ramadan, the month of fasting and prayer, and the occasion is welcomed first with a big feast. Our whole crew will be participating at the home of Abdullah, one of our translators. It should be some much-needed fun and relaxation... except for the one lonely soul who has to stay behind and edit the late packages.
*Author's note, 1991: Perhaps some casualties were Kuwaitis taken hostage by the invaders and being bussed into Iraq. There are still a few thousand Kuwaitis missing and unaccounted for.
|Kuwait water supply|
2Editor's note, 2011: In those days before wireless microphones, the sound technician's mics were connected by cables to a sound mixer strapped to the technician's chest. That mixer was attached by an umbilical cord to the back of the videographer's camera. Wherever the shooter went, the sound tech had to follow.
3Editor's note, 2011: Things were looking grim for Palestinians in Kuwait at that time. Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization had sided with Saddam during the conflict. During the next few months, as many as 400,000 Palestinians would be forced to leave Kuwait.
The big barbecue went well, and it was good for the whole gang to get together and cut loose. Our Kuwaiti hosts semed amused by the hi-jinks and fun that went on, and joined in with enthusiasm. Life of the party was the garrulous Chris Turner, who led a video camera tour of the gathering while Todd Baxter did the shooting. Everybody got their chance to squirm under the lights, an unnerving experience for most of us used to being on the other side of the lens. And to his credit, our supervising producer John Towriss shut the bureau down and made sure everyone went to the party. John commands the respect of everyone on the staff with his calm, reasoned way of getting things done. He has an experienced core of veterans working with him on this job, and their closeness makes things go much more smoothly. It's lucky to join a group like that, and to their credit they have never treated me like an outsider. Any distance between them and me is what I put there--but a given, considering the fact that I am new to the scene and not outgoing by nature.
But there was one hint of dissatisfaction in the ranks; a rumor swept the elevator this evening that one of our reporters had obtained a substantial supply of liquor and was not sharing. This seems incredible, given the circumstances of a dry time for so long here. I suspect that if the cache exists, it is earmarked for later use, most likely as payment for our Kuwaiti arrangers. But it's a situation that can fester if not aired out right away.
The lowdown on Ramadan is intriguing. It is scheduled to begin probably tomorrow evening, if the moon comes up in the right phase of crescent. A bulletin in the lobby advises us that for the next month no one is to eat, drink, or smoke in public during daylight hours. This would seem to roughly correspond with the Christian Lenten tradition. But as often happens, the original intent has been subverted by popular practice. The Muslims here have adapted to the daytime restrictions by staying up all night with their festivities, then sleeping in for most of the day. Thus, for a month, the hours are turned upside down. It can only make our work more difficult as we try to function in a world closed for the holidays.
As our host Fawzi (not the party host, but one of our guides-ed.) drove us back to the hotel through a dark and spooky silent city, I asked him if a Ramadan without electricity would be a Ramadan of a depressing rather than festive atmosphere. He agreed; there was not much hope of having power restored anytime in the next month. Just then we drove up to a checkpoint; procedure is to turn off our headlights and illuminate the car interior so the guards don't get jumpy.
"Zahahfi Amerikahn CNN," Fawzi explained. The soldier answered back with some joke, and he and Fawzi both laughed. I asked for a translation. A little embarrassed, Fawzi explained the guard's comment: "Let them try fasting for a month."
If Allah wills it. Inshallah.