By RU Contributor J.E. McCollough
After the main fighting was over in 2003, my Marine Corps counterintelligence team was moved to Al Kut. That summer in Al Kut passed slowly. At one point we thought we’d found the Weapons of Mass Destruction, but it turned out to just be some kind of bridge beam X-ray machine. But, the way the geiger counter went off, I’m pretty sure I’ve been exposed to some serious radiation. We went out to cafes, smoked hookah and drank chai with an inch of sugar in the glass. We talked to the locals, ate at the restaurants, all while trying to find a meaning for staying in Iraq long past the invasion.
There was one particular incident I could classify as both nastiness and levity, though definitely not heroic. It’s probably best categorized as ‘it’s funny now.’ I had befriended a local Iraqi, Hamid, a tall (over 5’ 6”) good looking guy (he had all his teeth) in his early twenties who worked at a roadside convenience store not far from the main market in Al Kut. He gave me what we called “atmospherics.” He knew people, things. Nothing really specific, just general information on the neighborhoods in the city and the surrounding areas. I, in turn, bought sodas from him. A lot of sodas.
One day in the middle of the 135 degree Iraqi summer my teammate Randy, SSgt Meyer, had a meeting with some Iraqi former regime officers he had been working with, and it just so happened the building they were meeting in was right next door to Hamid’s convenience store. Our security plan back then, in those halcyon summer days between the invasion and the insurgency, was somewhat lax. Randy went in with his linguist, Ahmed, and I stayed by the truck and stand guard by myself.
In hindsight… this was probably a bad idea. But, at the time we thought nothing of it, Al Kut was secure, more or less. And, fuck, we knew the neighborhood. I had Hamid as an informant keeping eyes out for me across the street at his convenience store.
Randy and Ahmed had just gone into the meeting when I saw Hamid walking across the street toward the truck with another young Iraqi. He’d seen my truck, of course, and wanted to chat. More than chat. I could smell the cheap whiskey on his breath from three feet away as he approached, he was swaying and grinning and sweating, his buddy was barely holding him up.
We exchanged kisses on the cheeks, of course, his stubble scratching my clean-shaven face, and we held hands as per Arabic custom. You can’t get information from an Arab if you refuse to touch them. They’re a touchy people, in both senses of the word, and it’s insulting if you refuse to engage them physically. I had my rifle in my right hand and his sweaty palm in my left. A drunk Iraqi was nothing to be worried about, but he had a glassy smile when he looked at me. And then he giggled. And started touching my shoulder with his other hand. Well, more rubbing than touching.
Now, I had liked Hamid, he seemed liked a good guy, he’d shown me some good stores to go to, the bad places to avoid where Iranian influence was extremely heavy, etc. He was a good guy. But the way he giggled and winked at me made me twitchy. I was by myself, and I had no idea how long Randy was going to be in his meetings, so I started getting a little uncomfortable. I didn’t have a linguist, and Hamid was too drunk at two in the afternoon to speak much of the little English he knew.
Hamid’s buddy, though, spoke some English and he was sober, more or less. They were laughing and Hamid was starting to caress my hand. Then he leaned to try to drunk-whisper into my ear.
“Five minutes.” He breathed heavily, wafting booze into my face.
I stepped back a bit and laughed uncertainly, at first not getting what he was referring to.
“Five minutes for what, habibi?” He was still holding my hand. With his free hand he pointed to the back of my humvee.
With a toothy smile he drunkenly exclaimed, “Five minutes, I give you big one!” And then he made a motion with his mouth like he was sucking a dick.
Holy fuck, I thought, I’ve just been propositioned by an Iraqi dude. I was the only Marine on the street, and Hamid was flirting with me. More than flirting. I had never felt more alone.
Keeping a smile on my face I rapidly considered my options, and hated all of them. I’m not knocking him because he wanted a piece of me. After all, I’m a very attractive man, and a Marine. But after I said no 27 times and he was still groping my shoulder, my patience was wearing thinner than the sexy underwear Hamid assumed I was wearing. And honestly, my trigger assembly was looking a lot more attractive than Hamid and his kinda sober buddy. There was no good ending to this. At least, not without causing serious blowback from the area. And, you know, warcrimes and whatnot. We got away with a lot of shit during the invasion, but gunning down a couple drunk dudes on a fairly busy street would have really looked bad…really bad. And, besides, who knows who would have come out of the nearby houses and blown me…away, in retaliation.
So instead of the violent reactions that were playing out in my head, I simply smiled at Hamid, laughed, kept holding his hand and told him I was married. And that I had no interest in men that way. He shrugged, and said, “So?” I had to keep telling him no, I didn’t want to get, “a big one,” as much as he insisted. He was persistent, and his drunk Iraqi ass couldn’t take a hint. As much as I tried to keep things chill, without escalating, I was not happy about being hit on by a dude. Eventually, Hamid’s buddy started to get the vibe, and he started to make excuses for his drunk friend. I’m pretty sure he saw me fingering the trigger on my rifle, and he probably realized things would go badly if Hamid kept going with his drunk flirtations.
Hamid’s friend apologized, in broken English. “Salaam alakem, mister. So sorry!” He grabbed Hamid by the shoulder and dragged him off, reeking of that damned Middle Eastern whiskey. Hamid’s buddy kinda gave me an apologetic look and, over Hamid’s protestations, they both stumbled away. Randy exited his meeting shortly thereafter, and we left that part of the city without any violence.
That day at the tender age of twenty-five I learned a valuable lesson. I’ve made a lot of relationship mistakes in my life, and I most humbly apologize to any woman I have ever drunkenly hit on, I am so glad you didn’t have a rifle/pistol/knife with you. Or, if you did, I’m glad you showed restraint to my dumb ass.
And, no, I never talked to Hamid again.