The tap, tap tap was more insistent than usual, Max needed me, his caution had evaporated as the security guards relaxed oversight. The morris-code was now fluent, like texting without technology, we had truncated the dots and dashes to confuse the guards should we be discovered.
I responded; “Here Max (stop)”
“Tomorrow (stop) video (stop) use sign language (stop) show no fear (stop)”
Max had been warning me about the video statement, I had seen his broadcast on Al Jazerra a year ago, he was holding a newspaper with current date and headlines. His appeal to President Obama was real but less than convincing, the suggestion that the US release senior al Qaeda prisoners from Guantanamo in exchange for Max’s life was untenable. The means were far in excess of the end, Max’s life would be sacrificed before we’d release ruthless terrorists with the ability to murder hundreds if not thousands of innocent non-combatants like they did on 9/11.
My relationship with Omar was complicated, one minute I was tempted to confide in him the next I feared he was misleading me in the worst possible way, posing as my friend and confidant. I knew he was my enemy, my captor the man who would slit my throat in an instant if I tried to escape. He knew as much about me, I represented the great satan, the evil empire, the daughter of a US Foreign Service officer with a direct line to the President of the United States. And yet there was a connection, a bond between us that transcended politics. When I was with Omar it was physical, my body ached for him in ways only a woman understands. I had never felt this way before, with Billy the sex was fun but merely a distraction, with Omar it would be visceral, I was losing control of my circumstances, Max sensed it and was concerned.
I’m a valuable asset, a blue chip in this high stakes game of international intrigue. Al Qaeda rolled the dice with my kidnapping, they knew the US would react with a massive effort. Our stated policy on non-negotiation with terrorists would be replaced with search and destroy, if anything happened to me. The entire free world would cooperate in rescue efforts, there would be no place on earth where Omar and his elders would be safe, even Muslims would desert them. They would lose their standing with the Taliban and be forced into hiding, living off the land, a nameless, homeless band of outlaws scavenging for their existence.
Amatullah had given up her midnight visits, my violent response to her touch and complaints to Omar had struck a nerve with the elders, I sensed she had been warned to back down or face discipline in the stoning pit or worse. When she entered the room she was carrying fresh clothes and new sandals. She looked at me with a sardonic grin, motioning for me to follow her towards the bathroom. The tub had been filled with warm water, there were shampoos and conditioners, I was being prepared like a starlet for her first audition. She pointed towards the steaming water leering and grinning, I turned my back as I took off my clothes, her muffled laugh was unmistakable, she hadn’t changed, she would have been in that tub with me had it not been for Omar.
The interrogation cottage had been converted into a studio. There were lights and screens everywhere with black drapes covering the windows and walls. There was a large cushion on the floor and a boom mic extended from the ceiling, there was a teleprompter.
When Omar came in his persona had changed, he was all business, he motioned me towards our usual chairs, they had been moved to the corner of the room to accommodate the video equipment. He had a printed script in his hand, rolled lightly, he used it as a pointer for emphasis when he began to speak.
“Today is an important day my young friend.” This was not his usual greeting, “young friend” had not been used since our second meeting, I knew he was speaking for the benefit of the technicians who had entered the room and were adjusting the equipment. Omar continued.
“Today we will make you a movie star, a heroine, a Joan Of Ark inspiring your countrymen to do the right thing and secure your release.”
I was stunned, he was mouthing the Islamist party line and yet there was a lack of sincerity in his voice. Was Omar trying to tell me something? Max had instructed me to devise sigh language unmistakable to Americans but of no consequence to my captors. Omar had been a student in the US he was familiar with the idioms of young Americans. My mind raced, I would be scripted for the video, expected to read exactly what was printed on the teleprompter. This was not live TV, any attempt to signal the Embassy or my parents would be deleted and I’d be punished. I thought of a NetFlex film my Dad had shown me, it was called The Great Labowski, a story about a laid back guy from the free love era of the early seventies who challenged the status quo and earned the non-sequitur of “Dude” or “Duderino”. The name stuck and became code for generations that followed, we still call each other “Dude” with a knowing affection.
They were almost ready, the stage was set, I’d be sitting cross legged on the cushion looking right into the camera. The teleprompter would be stage center, it was strange under the circumstances, but that device reminded me of political speeches. President Obama used one, when he gave the state of the union addresses you could see them mounted on the podium.
The “Dude” kept rattling around in my head, how could I insert that term into this carefully scripted performance without alerting the elders. Omar was now on my side, in my heart I believed that. He hadn’t turned me, it was the other way around, his experience in the US had changed him and my presence here had reignited his memory of life on a college campus and a world of learning beyond the Koran.
They clipped the small mic onto the neck of my hajib and told me to say something for a sound check. The lights were adjusted one more time, the reflector screens were moved around while Amatullah dusted my face with skin toned powder. They were determined to signal the West they were professional and understood the value proposition being presented here, Alex Wintour in exchange for two convicted terrorists being held in Guantanamo. It would come down to exchange rates, my value in exchange for their convicts, the healthier I appeared the greater the rate.
I decided to go off script in hopes that Omar would explain my meaning and convince the elders that use of the term “Dude” would make me more believable and improve the message they were trying to convey.
I was told to read through the script several times, they wanted me to sound natural like these were my words and thoughts. Of course that was not possible, I would never speak the way their stupid interpreters thought Americans did, especially young teenage Americans. As every parent knows we have our own language which no one over 20 understands. I hoped Omar would convince them that terms like “Dude” would make my talk more natural and believable.
The elders filed in just before we started, they had three guards with them dressed in black Disdasha, the long hooded robes favored by Muslims in Morocco. Their faces were covered with scarves, only the eyes showed, two were holding AK-47’s. The third was holding a long Japanese sword, with clear markings on the handle and scabbard, the weapon of ancient Samurai. These swords were razor sharp and balanced, in the hands of a skilled warrior they could decapitate a man in a single stroke.
The production was staged, the intent was clear, they wanted to terrify the West. If the daughter of a US Ambassador could be snatched was anyone safe.
Omar spoke to me in hushed tones, Muhammad looked at him not me, the tension in the room was palpable.
This was a critical moment, my job was to convince the US government that negotiation was my only hope. Without the release of Guantanamo prisoners I would be stoned and beheaded, my severed head delivered to the US Embassy in Islamabad.
I was able to view the video on a monitor, the first portion was a statement by Muhammad in Urdu translated into English by Omar.
“The daughter of satan will be sacrificed to Allah without your cooperation, this is what happens to infidels” the video switched to street scenes of terrorists holding captives by their hair and slicing their throats with Samurai short swords, the type used for seppuku, ritual Japanese suicide. The scenes were graphic, horrifying, I couldn’t watch. Omar shouted at me, “open your eyes woman, this is your fate if your government abandons you”. I knew he was speaking for Muhammad’s benefit, I knew Omar didn’t believe in this, I knew it, didn’t I?
The script was rolling to fast over the prompter, I asked for it to be slowed down. Omar translated for the technician. These were not my words, Sally and Owen will know that. I glanced at Omar, he knew what I was thinking, would he help me?
“Read woman”, he ordered,
My voice slow and hesitant I read the words
“I’m speaking to my parents in Islamabad, Owen and Sally Wintour and the US Department of State. I’m healthy and safe, my captors are treating me well. I am being guarded and protected, you cannot find me. This is Saturday November 5, 2011. In today’s DAWN, the Karachi daily newspaper, the headlines are about a kidnapping:”
KARACHI, Nov 5: Two men working at the National Institute of Child Health were on Saturday taken into custody for their alleged involvement in the kidnapping of a newborn boy from the health facility, police said.
I’m appealing directly to President Obama, I am the daughter of your ambassador to the Republic of Pakistan, Owen Wintour. I am a US citizen, educated in the United States. I love my parents, my friends and my country and want only to be released from captivity and returned to my home in Islamabad. These people love their families, their friends and their country as well and want only to be left in peace pursuing the same dreams ; freedom of assembly, freedom of religion freedom to provide education, safety and medical care for their children. They want their loved ones returned to them as you would want your own family. Please, Mr President, release the prisoners in Guantanamo and bring me home*********
I stopped, the statement went on page after page, they knew that having the daughter of a US Ambassador speaking would be an opportunity to propagandize to the world, every word I spoke would be heard and some people would actually believe me.
The words stuck in my throat, this was unmitigated bullshit, I couldn’t keep talking with a straight face. I looked at Omar, his eyes sympathized with mine as he again demanded:
I blurted out; “Omar, the Americans will never believe this, they’ll know it’s a hoax they’ll know I’m being forced to say these things. You’ve lived in America, you know I’m right, explain to Muhammad.”
Omar looked confused, uncertain, as he glanced around the room to Muhammad. Abdul Aalee was whispering in Muhammad’s ear. Abdul didn’t speak English but he understood it perfectly, he was translating my words for Muhammad, Omar would have to be careful, he was not the only linguist in the room, Muhammad’s policy was simple, “trust but verify”, Omar’s words would be filtered through Abdul.
I returned to the prompter, Max Stein’s warning ringing in my ears, “use body language, sign language, words, phrases, tics anyway at all to signal the US that you’re being coerced.”
I continued, “Mr President, I just turned eighteen years old, my life lays before me, I beg you to consider the demands of my captors. These people do not share our values, in their world it’s a life for a life. For them a life in prison is worse than death, if their leaders don’t come home they’ll kill me and return my head to Islamabad.”
Even Omar winced at this last sentence. He liked me, I knew he gained respect for women during our so-called interrogations. Was this God’s way of using me to achieve what guns, bombs and diplomacy had failed to do, elevate women in this suppressive male dominated society, I wondered?
Omar translated my thoughts to Muhammad, I picked up words of the Urdu, his reference to “Dude” was unmistakable. Muhammad hesitated, pondering Omar’s comments, finally he looked at me and nodded his approval to Omar.
Omar spoke with the person doing transcription for the teleprompter, he used a stenotype, like a court reporter. I watched the revised script scrolling down the screen, I couldn’t believe it, I hoped Omar knew what he was doing. If his intentions were discovered by Muhammad, his head would roll down the streets of Karachi like a bruised bowling ball.
I began to read:
“To my friends in the US, the Dudes I hungout with, my boyfriend Scott in Dubai, my Mom Sally and Dad Owen in Islamabad. I’m OK, for now. I need your help to convince the President that my continued safety and well being are in his hands. These people are determined to secure the release of their leaders imprisoned in Guantanamo”.
My hands were in my lap with the middle finger of my left hand clearly visible in an extended salute to my captors, I knew Billy would get it, we had our own sign language for exchanging sexy messages during homeroom and assemblies in Prep School. I adjusted my legs and repositioned my arms as I spoke. The common arm signal for requesting mechanical assistance in an emergency was to push both arms out in front of you in parallel tracks. As I spoke, I continuously used this motion to emphasize my comments praying the kidnappers would appreciate my enthusiastic appeal to America and not understand that I was pleading for immediate help.
Musa would be watching, he would know what I was doing, he would find me, I knew it!
After the interview Omar was pleased, I knew he was under pressure, Muhammad watched him closer than he did me. I wondered if this savvy old man understood the chemistry between two young people. Omar was falling in love with me but he didn’t understand what was happening to him. He knew there was a physical attraction, his body told him that and he chaffed against it, so did I.
He could be turned, his elders suspected as much. Had he, they wondered, spent to much time in the craven west to be of further use to them? Would Omar give up his faith, his allegiance to the cause, his family and his comrades for this young infidel?