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Hostage: The Jill Carroll Story – Part 6: Reciting Koranic verses

By Jill CarrollStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / August 21, 2006

Jillian Tamaki

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Um Ali – the wife of Abu Ali, my stubble-bearded captor – was my constant companion during the first three weeks of captivity. She was about 25, very pretty with big eyes. Wherever I was moved, she came, too, along with some of her children. At first, I thought she might be an ally or at least sympathetic. She wasn't.

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One night – one of the first nights in a new house in Abu Ghraib – Um Ali and I had lain down on the thin mattresses that served as beds by night and seats by day. I had just taken off my head scarf when suddenly a guard rattled the key violently in the lock and burst into the room, flipping on the light.

In a frenzy, using very basic English, he ordered me up. I leapt up, my hands shaking so much I couldn't get my head scarf repinned.

The guard started wrapping a red-and-white-checked kaffiyeh around my mouth and head, violently and tightly. I opened my eyes wide in terror, silently pleading for help to Um Ali, who was standing next to me.

Her gaze returned no sympathy. The guard whispered orders to her in Arabic that I couldn't understand.

"Hurry, hurry, quickly, quickly," the guard hissed angrily in Arabic.

The kaffiyeh was wrapped so hard that the dry fabric was cutting into my mouth.

"They're going to haul me out and shoot me in the head," I thought in panic.

He was so angry. His hatred was obvious from the violence with which he wrapped the kaffiyeh around my head. He didn't know me, but I was an American, a symbol.

Um Ali had my glasses. As they moved me to a chair in the hall, I heard a "click, click." Terrified, I thought it was a gun being cocked.

"If an American soldier comes here you don't speak," he said.

That was the reason for the frenzy! He thought there were soldiers nearby. He then demanded that I recite the Koran.

"I just have to live through this. I just have to live through this," I thought, sitting, head bowed, blind, and breathing with difficulty. I was terrified.

After about 20 minutes it appeared no soldiers were coming. He led me back into the room and barked a command to sleep.

There were no whispered words of comfort or explanation from Um Ali.

In my early days of captivity, at one of the first houses I'd been held, an elderly woman who'd been visiting looked sadly at me and told me that inshallah – "God willing" – I would go home soon.

Then the visitor turned to Um Ali and sighed that my captivity was thuloum, or an injustice.

"This is not thuloum," Um Ali snapped back.

My female companion/jailer/suicide-bomber-wannabe grew more irritated and despondent as the days wore on. Um Ali was stuck with me in a dim little room.

Then one evening she bounded in with a grin. She was delighted by the news reports that thousands of homes in California had been destroyed by forest fires.

"This is justice" wrought by God, she said, "because the soldiers destroy our houses."

• • •

Part of Um Ali's growing hardness toward me came as I tried to let her know that, despite the many hours of reciting the Koran with her, I didn't plan to convert to Islam.

In the beginning I was an eager student, as I saw how much it pleased them whenever I showed an interest in learning. But I soon realized I had made a dangerous mistake.

The more I let my captors teach me, the more they expected me to convert. After a few weeks, the question was always, "Why haven't you come to Islam yet?"

I tried to put the brakes on delicately, afraid of what they might do if they thought I was rejecting Islam. How could I tell them that adopting a new religion and code for living wasn't possible when I was held captive, racked with despair, and in fear daily for my life?

One afternoon, when I was exhausted from listening to Um Ali repeat verses of the Koran over and over so I could memorize them, I said, "I don't understand the Arabic in the Koran, and so I can't understand what it really means."

"We'll bring you an English Koran," said Abu Ali, who had overheard me. "You want this?"

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