Ali was making coffee, the thick black cardomom-scented stuff that Kuwatis drink by the gallon, when I mentioned to Mahmoud that I was reading "A Hundred and One Days", a book by a Norwegian journalist about the second Iraqi war and the occupation of Baghdad.
I wonder, I said half to myself, what it would be like to live in a country that's occupied.
Not easy, said Mahmoud. Ali had his back to us, still swirling the coffee in the tiny silver pot, but I could hear him muttering to himself in the Kuwaiti dialect they speak.
Mahmoud is my age. In 1991, when Saddam occupied Mahmoud's country, I was in college. When the American bombs started to fall, I was in Scandanavia. Ali was in California with his family.
Mahmoud was in Kuwait for all of it, the sole support for eight other people, all too pregnant or sick or old to leave.
We had no water, he told me. Every day I would go out and get cans of water from wherever I could, sometimes from the ditches by the side of the road. My brothers and sisters and my parents had left for Jordan and I stayed behind. Someone had to take care of my grandfather and my aunts and the babies.
We would line up for hours for bread, he continued. Sometimes in the bread lines the Iraqi soldiers would come and take some people away. We never knew why or where they went. I walked everywhere, passing through Iraqi checkpoints several times a day.
All you could do was keep your head down. Some of them, you could make them laugh, and that was all right. Others thought we were trash.
Ali poured coffee into tiny glasses. Iraqi soldiers, he said conversationally, are like the Chinese. Dirty. Not all of them, but most of them. Dirty.
Mahmoud and Ali broke into something faced-paced and gutteral I couldn't follow, my Arabic being so far limited to compliments, thank-yous, and requests for basic food items and water.
It was not easy, Mahmoud repeated. After the war I felt I had to do something for my country, so I volunteered at the hospital where they sent people who had been frightened by the shelling. All I had to do was sit and listen to them talk, the men, but after three days I could not go back. The men frightened me too much. The stories were too frightening. I could not do more for my country than I had done. I had helped keep my family alive until the end of the occupation.
Then he looked at me, full on, for the first time since he'd started speaking. Don't tell anyone, he said. Not even David. I don't want anyone to know what I did.
Why not? I asked.
Because they will ask me questions, he answered.