Wednesday, March 14, 2007
ten seconds to love:
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- It's a hot afternoon at al-Karkh Traffic Police headquarters in Khadimiya, easily the hottest in the last week. In a darkened office of the sunny building, Major Lawrence (his real name; really!) is answering inventory questions for Lieutenant Anthony Howell of the 92nd Military Police Battalion. Lawrence, who looks like a fat Bashar Assad, has the monotonous job of tracking logistics for the traffic police, and his office has the perfunctory whiteboard filled with statistics about shifts, weapons, ammunition, everything. (Whiteboards are necessary for accounting when you have only a few hours of electricity for your computers every day.)

The half-hour-long stats check bogs down to the point where Lawrence starts committing a no-no from the U.S. perspective: asking the Americans for stuff. Howell and his fellow MPs want Lawrence to go through their own chain of command for their inventory needs, both to test the efficiency of the Iraqi system and to roll back any sense of dependency. But now Lawrence has his hand out, and he can't close it. He starts out asking Howell for flack jackets -- diplomatically, Howell says he'll see what he can do, but no promises -- and soon he's passing out his ballpoint pens to show Howell and his colleague, civilian police adviser Jon Moore, how Iraqi pens smudge and tear paper. "How about getting me some American pens?"

The meeting is about to break when Lawrence's warrant officer, Tarek, walks in. Tarek, thin as a skeleton, has the leathery face of a thirty-year veteran officer and the dessicated teeth of a fifty-year chain smoker, and sure enough he moves over in front of Lawrence's fridge and lights a Miami-brand cigarette. Do you know Tarek? Lawrence asks. They do, and everyone exchanges hellos. "He's a great officer, a longtime veteran," he says through the battalion translator, Achilles. "The only thing is he smokes too many cigarettes." Ha-ha; everyone laughs. Howell and Moore exchange a can-we-go-now look.

But Lawrence isn't finished. "He likes sex, too. You want to check out his cellphone? Lots of porno movies!"

Howell and Moore exchange another look. This one displays much more alarm. Suddenly this is no typical inventory meeting. Lawrence, grinning, taps Achilles, who arches an eyebrow. Achilles wants to make sure Lawrence means for him to translate what he's saying. He does. Achilles, himself bewildered, says, "He wants to know if you guys can have sex in Iraq."

MP training has not prepared the 24-year old lieutenant from West Lafayette, Indiana, for a sex chat with an Iraqi police bureaucrat. "Umm," he says. That's not really allowed.

You're kidding! Lawrence says through Achilles. "How do you do it, guys? What the fuck?"

Howell is blessed with being quick on his feet. "Lots of prayer." Moore, a terminally polite middle-aged Tennesseean, is chuckling to himself like he's trying to survive a plane crash through the power of positive thinking.

Lawrence keeps talking and Achilles keeps translating. "He was in the Iraqi Army, and when they'd be abroad, the officers would give them this white powder, to put in food, or in tea. It's called kafour; I don't know what that is in English, it's an Arabic term..." Moore nods to me: "I see where this is going." Achilles continues, "You put it in tea, it is to stop your orgasm -- your erection." Howell starts shooting me looks. I'm just scribbling as fast as I can.

"You've been to Iraq three times," Lawrence says to Howell, "and you haven't had sex? You're an American citizen! How can you do that?" Actually, it's Howell's second tour.

Elderly Tarek breaks in. "If I'm away from home for just three days, I'm ready to eat my wife!"

Look, Lawrence says. "I spent ten days here at once, not long ago. It wasn't secure enough to go home. When I got back, I ate a lot of dates and honey" -- an aphrodisiac -- "and it was like Viagra! My wife, she was screaming! 'Ah! No more!'" He continues to share that when security improved somewhat, he was able to vary the days he got to come home, and would startle his wife. "She was like, 'What the fuck?'"

Mercifully, Lawrence shifts the subject to how the promotion system for officers works in the U.S. Army. But before we're finally about to leave, he says he feels like Howell and Moore are his brothers. "I hope you guys go back to the States and get everything you want." Achilles doesn't need to explain what Lawrence means.
--Spencer Ackerman