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Battling to bring home an ‘American Hostage’

In ‘American Hostage,’ Micah Garen and Marie-Hélène Carl recount Garen's abduction in Iraq and the struggle to get him back. Read an excerpt.
/ Source: Weekend Today

Journalists and filmmakers Micah Garen and Marie-Hélène Carleton were working in Iraq on a documentary with their Iraqi translator Amir Doshi, when, in summer of 2004, Micah was unmasked as a foreigner and kidnapped by militants in southern Iraq. “American Hostage: A Memoir of a Journalist Kidnapped in Iraq and the Remarkable Battle to Win His Release” is the memoir of Micah Garen's harrowing abduction and survival in captivity, as well as the heroic and successful struggle of Marie-Hélène; Micah's sister, Eva; along with family and friends to win Micah's and Amir's release from their captors. Garen and Carleton visited “Weekend Today” to discuss their book. Here's an excerpt:

Micah, Friday, August 13 The four-hour drive south from Baghdad to Nasiriyah was quiet. I kept my eyes down as we passed a Mahdi Army checkpoint on the main road just outside the town of Fajr, the center for Iraq's illicit antiquities trade. One hundred yards farther was a modest Iraqi police checkpoint. The twin checkpoints signaled an uneasy truce that had been struck in the Dhi Qar province, while just a few hours east in Najaf fighting raged between the Mahdi Army and Coalition forces. We drove past the two checkpoints without slowing down. They were a token show of force by both sides, a delicate balance. Stopping cars might upset the balance.

We arrived in Nasiriyah at ten a.m. and stopped outside Amir's small translation office in the center of town. Amir got out of the car, looked both ways to see that everything was okay; then I quickly followed him up the stairs with my bags. I didn't know where I would stay that night. I was no longer welcome at the Italian base and had not heard back from my request earlier in the week to stay at the American base. The local hotel for foreigners, the Al-Janoub, was too dangerous. That left the Nasiriyah Museum, Amir's office, or possibly his house, none of which were good options.

Amir told me to wait, saying he had good news, and went out, padlocking the door behind him for my safety. I sat on his old sofa thumbing through a worn copy of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, one of many books that lay scattered around his cluttered office, the walls papered with pictures of Don Quixote, French philosophers, and works by local artists.

Amir returned a half hour later, smiling, holding my small digital camera. The camera was the smallest of the half dozen we carried, a pocket digital that could shoot a few minutes of grainy video, allowing us to film or photograph without drawing much attention or suspicion. It had been stolen two days before by one of the guards at the Nasiriyah Museum. Mr. Hamdani, an archaeologist and antiquities inspector for the Dhi Qar province, who looked after the museum, had managed to apply enough pressure and, in Amir's words, “the situation was resolved.”

“Which guard was it?” I asked.

“Don't worry,” Amir said, “your camera is back.”

“But which one?” I insisted.

“The one who helped you look for it.” That was the way things were done. It mattered less who was responsible than that the camera had been returned safely.

Since we had an hour to kill before a meeting with Mr. Hamdani at the Nasiriyah Museum, with my camera back we decided to film the market.

We headed first to a nearby Internet center so I could check messages. Public places were not safe for foreigners, but I blended in so well by now that no one noticed me unless I spoke: Iraqi haircut, the sort of beige plaid polyester shirt that almost every Iraqi man owned, and, most importantly, a bushy mustache. Amir sat me down at a computer and whispered to me not to say a word, then disappeared to run an errand.

Internet centers had sprung up all over Iraq shortly after the war, and were full most days with young men chatting by Internet phone or instant messenger with relatives and friends all over the world. Use of personal computers and Internet communication with the outside world was heavily restricted during the time of Saddam, so most Iraqis typed awkwardly, with two fingers. I sat quietly and checked for an email from Marie-Hélène. Nothing. She was traveling and it would be difficult for her to get her email, but the empty inbox was a disappointment. It had been over a week since her last message. Traveling in Iraq had always been dangerous while we were together, but in the two weeks since she'd left things seemed to be getting considerably worse. I wanted to keep her updated on my whereabouts, but since she had not yet replied to my last email, I decided to wait.

I sent an email to John Burns, the New York Times bureau chief in Baghdad, with an update on the road to Nasiriyah. We'd eaten lunch together the day before to discuss a follow-up article I would write about the looting. He'd been surprised when I'd told him that the Mahdi Army, a Shi'ite militia loyal to the powerful cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, had set up checkpoints along the road in plain view of Iraqi police checkpoints. It meant the Iraqi forces were clearly not in control. I also sent one to my mother in which I confessed, to tell you the truth, I have to drive through Mahdi army checkpoints and sometime battles every other day ... anyway, back early next week. I am down in Nasiriyah, where the Mahdi army work hand-in-hand with the local police. they are just kids, and generally they are not aggressive towards foreigners, but it's good to keep a low profile.

This was the first time in six months I had told her anything about the dangers I faced — perhaps because this was my last trip down to Nasiriyah, perhaps because I was growing confident that I had made it through my five-month journey safely.

Amir returned and we set out to visit the market. The civil guards hired to protect the archaeological sites often carried their own guns, purchased at places like the market. I wanted a few minutes of video footage of gun sellers for our documentary about the looting of archaeological sites and the efforts to protect them. Nothing fancy, just some solid background shots of a gun market.

I carried carefully chosen items, nothing that would make me stand out as a foreigner, and nothing that would identify me as an American if I was stopped. My glasses were hidden in my shirt pocket — you don't wear them if you don't want to look Western — and I brought only the essentials: my press card, watch, wallet, and the small camera. My wallet held only cash, American dollars, as common as Iraqi dinar.

The market in Nasiriyah, just east of the main square adorned with a statue of Habubi, a poet and religious leader who fought for freedom against the British in 1915, was a few minutes by car from Amir's office. Rows of stalls, shops, and street vendors' carts overflowed with commerce. You could buy almost anything there: posters of Shi'ite religious leaders, video CDs of Friday prayers and recent fighting filmed by the Madhi Army, secondhand books, Quranic texts, plastic sandals, vegetables, furniture, televisions, and satellite dishes. The part of the market where guns were sold was a short, dusty road lined on both sides with shops, easily missed if one wasn't looking closely. We parked and got out of the car. Hatem, our seventeen-year-old driver, waited patiently in the driver's seat.

The gun sellers discreetly displayed their wares on old wooden boxes or cloths laid on the ground. We approached the first man. Trying to gain his trust, I bent down to admire his pistols, about five of them, neatly laid out on a box. Then, checking with Amir first, who nodded his head okay, I cautiously pulled out the small camera and began filming. The gun seller saw my camera and asked Amir if we could take a picture of him and a friend. I felt uncomfortable that they had noticed the camera. Was Amir nervous? He smiled and played along. The two put their arms around each other and smiled. I snapped a picture and showed them the digital image on the back. “Good,” one said with a thumbs-up, to which I nodded my head and smiled. It was like swimming with sharks: unpredictable, they could turn on me at any time.

This was the first time in six months I had told her anything about the dangers I faced — perhaps because this was my last trip down to Nasiriyah, perhaps because I was growing confident that I had made it through my five-month journey safely.

Excerpted from “American Hostage: A Memoir of a Journalist Kidnapped in Iraq and the Remarkable Battle to Win His Release” by Micah Garen and Marie-Helene Carleton. Copyright © 2005, Zeugma & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. Published by . No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.