As dusk approached, we were offered a final meal of flat bread, roast chicken, and tomatoes.  The maniacal little leader came to watch us eat, all the while aiming his gun at us.  “Eat, eat.  Why do you have no appetite?  Are you afraid, American pig?” he said and then laughed at his own joke.  Although I was certainly not hungry, I did my best to choke down a few difficult mouthfuls.  Inside, I had to stifle a trembling fear from overcoming my composure.  My fellow prisoner began to sob, and I reached over to take his hand.

“How long do you think the pain will last?” he asked.  It was something I had been giving careful consideration.  “About three seconds.”  As the sun started to set on the horizon, Mubashir drove up and entered into a heated argument with the newcomer.  Reassured at the sound of his voice, I had risked a glance out of the window—just in time to see the ceremonial dagger being returned to the trunk of the car.  We had been spared once again.

During some candid conversations, I finally learned the identity of my captors.  As we talked about the various ethnic factions and politics at play in northern Iraq, I had mentioned the group Ansar al-Islam.  Mubashir had looked surprised at my comment and said, “Don’t you know?  We are Ansar al-Islam.”  My heart sank when I heard this because I knew that this group of fundamentalist extremists had links to Al Qaeda.  “Yes,” confided Mubashir, “Osama is our brother in Afghanistan, and al-Zarqawi is our brother in Jordan.”

This group had never before released a foreigner, and this revelation explained why they had never mentioned ransoming us off as hostages.  The Ansar al-Islam fought for their religious beliefs—not for money.  Although I expressed my fears to Mubashir, he once again stressed the fact that his brother’s wish would be granted—provided we were telling the truth.

We spent Friday morning awaiting word that we could enter Mosul and be granted an audience with the new emir.  We got the word around 2 P.M. that the emir would see us.  We climbed into one car—the UNICEF driver in the trunk; Zeynep and I, along with Mubashir and two guards, in the front.  Our hands were not tied, and we wore no blindfolds—everything seemed to be going well.  However, once inside Mosul, it became apparent that something had gone wrong with the plan.

We had stopped at several homes and picked up different guides at various locations.  Eventually, we were taken to a large house in a northern suburb and led into an empty room.  The UNICEF driver was released from the trunk and taken into a small anteroom beneath a staircase.  Mubashir had complained of being ill, and he now seemed disinterested in our fate.  There were about a dozen young men inside this house, and they were extremely hostile toward us.  Blankets were placed across all the windows despite the soaring temperature.

Zeynep whispered that these new men were not Turkmen but Arabs, as she no longer understood their conversation.  Mubashir made some sort of statement to them on our behalf and then bade us farewell.  He and his men were heading back into Tal Afar to join the fight.

Within minutes of his departure, the Arabs burst into the room and roughly blindfolded me.  As I tried to protest, I was kicked in the ribs, knocking the wind out of me.  “Shut up, American spy!”

For the next hour, I was interrogated—beginning again with their presumption that I was either a CIA or Mossad spy.  I gave all the possible details of my identity, and, when asked how I could confirm these “lies,” I told them to research my writings on the internet.  In particular, they could not believe that I had written features for Al Jazeera’s website.  Although questioning was intense, I was relieved when it ended without any physical force being used.  My relief was premature.

I had barely removed the blindfold and taken a sip of water when five men rushed back into the room.  I could see the batons and ropes, but I had no time to react before I was pulled to my feet.  When I attempted to resist, my feet were knocked out from under me, and I was savagely kicked.  They blindfolded me and gagged me with a headscarf.  My hands were tied behind my back, and I was rolled over with my feet up in the air—tied to a pole.  Two men held the pole up, while two others began beating my feet with straps and batons.

At first, I could not see the blows coming.  In his pent-up fury, one of my attackers struck my face several times with his fist, knocking my blindfold aside.  I mentally promised myself not to give them the satisfaction of hearing me scream until after the 20th blow.  I bit down hard on the cloth and focused on counting rather than the pain.  I kept my promise, but on the 21st strike I screamed out, “F–k!”  The cloth muffled the sound somewhat.  With each successive blow I uttered the same expletive.  They deliberately hit the same spot on my thigh repeatedly.  For the first four or five blows, the pain would increase incrementally, and then the final strike would force an involuntary convulsion.  I could feel the pain explode in my head, and my body jack-knifed upward reflexively.

In these instances, I found myself blurting out “Jeeesus Christ!” through my gritted teeth.  I lost all track of time.  I could have been tortured for 5 minutes or 25.  I do remember that, despite the excruciating pain in my legs, I kept fearing that the next blow would be to my genitals.  With my legs splayed apart and upended, I felt incredibly vulnerable.  When the beating finally stopped, I felt a tremendous sense of relief that they had not used the batons on my crotch.

After my feet were cut loose, I was roughly pulled upright, and the interrogator handed me a pen and paper.  “You will write down all the websites you think might help to confirm that you are in fact a Canadian journalist,” he said.  I made some remark that I would have gladly done so without the beating, but my attempt at black humor was wasted.

I had been badly beaten, and, as I walked out of the anteroom back into the main parlor, most of the Arab “pupils” had gathered to see my reaction.  I tried my best not to let them see any weakness by pressing the pen hard against the paper so that they could not see my hands shaking.  Taking the list of websites from me, the interrogator told me, “If this checks out, you’ll live; if you lied, you die.”

A few minutes later, I was ushered into an adjacent room and told to lie facedown on the floor, and a gun barrel was placed against the back of my neck.  It was Zeynep’s turn to be beaten, and, as she cried out in pain, the guard behind me kept repeating, “You can spare her the pain—simply confess that you are a spy.”  As I kept uttering denials, he spat on my head and said, “Only a dog would let a woman suffer like that!”  I thought to myself, And what kind of animal would torture a woman?

For several hours after the beating, I was kept alone in that room.  My legs were aching and would occasionally seize up on me.  I tried to stand, but the guards insisted that I remain seated on a mat.  When the interrogator finally reentered my holding cell he said, “You failed the test on the internet.  Prepare yourself to die—tonight.”  As the door banged shut behind him, I once again had an all-consuming sense of dread.  The next time the door opened, it was an armed guard and one of the “pupils” carrying a platter of food.  Once again, I was being encouraged to eat my final meal.

Though I did not know it at the time, Zeynep and the UNICEF driver had been set free, while both of them were told that I had been beheaded.

After I had picked at my food, the dishes were cleared away, and a heavyset young Arab entered the room.  He was grinning from ear to ear, and I recognized him as one of my torturers.  “I am the lucky one who has been chosen to kill you, American dog,” he said.

It was at this time I decided to play my final card.  Zeynep had always told me that I should tell our captors I wished to convert to Islam.  Even if I wasn’t sincere, she thought it might buy me time (if not freedom).  “I want you to teach me an Islamic prayer before you kill me,” I said.  “A man about to die should have a god to pray to—shouldn’t he?”  Other guards and pupils had overheard this, and they seemed excited at the prospect of converting a Kaffir and then executing him.

As they started to explain the conversion process and necessary prayers, one of the clerics returned to the house.  He put an end to the commotion by informing me my religious conversion was no longer necessary as I was “free to go.”  Thinking this may be yet another test of my resolve to convert, I explained that, in that case, it was even more important, “as a man needs a god to thank for sparing him his life.”

I was advised that the procedure would have to be performed at a later date, as a car was waiting to take me to a safe house in preparation for my release.  Once again, I dared to start believing that I might actually survive this ordeal.

My eyes had been taped shut with electrical tape, and my sunglasses placed on top.  I was led gently to a car outside.  The night air felt cool and refreshing, and I tried to keep my euphoria in check—reminding myself that it was not over yet.

However, by the time we had driven several kilometers and my escorts led me inside a new house, I felt certain that I had been saved.  The glasses were taken off, and the tape removed.  I found myself in a clean home sitting on a bed looking at three smiling Arabs.  My guards from the other house were in the doorway, and one of them waved his hand in a fluttering motion, smiled, and said, “Free.  Bye, bye.”  The door shut behind them and all of a sudden the three Arabs stopped smiling.  The big man standing in the center of the room strode toward me, pulling a pair of handcuffs from behind his back.  The nightmare started all over.

They cuffed my hands behind my back and instructed me to sleep.  Two of them slept in the same room as me—armed with pistols—while the homeowner had taken the precaution of padlocking us in.  It proved impossible to sleep with my arms pinned back like that, and, after two hours, I felt stabbing pain in my shoulders.

The following morning, it became clear that instead of taking me to a safe house en route to freedom, I had been transferred to yet another fundamentalist faction.  At about 10 A.M., I was “prepped” for my new interrogation by having my feet and hands chained to the bed and my eyes once again taped firmly shut.  I estimated that at least three additional terrorists entered the room and began talking with my guards.  Anticipating yet another beating, I fought to control my fear.  One man simply stated in excellent English, “We know that you are a Mossad spy.”  As I started to protest, he interrupted me, “Don’t waste your breath.  You have 24 hours to decide whether to tell the truth and die with a clear conscience or go to your death as a liar.  That is your choice.  Think it over.”  With that, the newcomers promptly left the house.

I spent that entire day chained to the bed and, for the most part, blindfolded.  As a gesture of compassion, they would occasionally free my eyes so that I could watch the television.  All the programming was on the anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks.  It was September 11, and I was tied to a bed in an Al Qae-da cell house in Iraq.  I felt my fate was truly sealed.

That evening, I was once again asked what I would prefer as my final meal.  After arguing, again, that my appetite wasn’t exactly stimulated by my imminent death, I asked for a roast chicken.  When the food arrived, they kept one of my hands tied to the bed and a pistol to the back of my head.  It seemed they were taking no chances in letting me escape execution.

It was only 9 P.M.—just 11 hours after they first came, not the promised 24—when the three other terrorists returned.  I did not feel cheated out of the time, as I was actually dreading the thought of another night of agony in the handcuffs.  I had made my peace with God, and, if necessary, I was prepared to die.  Another 13 hours of mental anguish was not necessary.

As soon as everyone was settled around my bed, the interrogator said that I did not have to fear any torture, as this round of questioning would be far more straightforward.  “It is either life or knife—with each answer that you give us,” he said.  “So please relax.”  For over one hour, I carefully answered all their questions—careful to avoid the obvious traps.  For instance, when asked, “Have you ever visited the State of Israel?” I answered, “No, I have never been to the occupied State of Palestine.”

I have no idea whether my answers were convincing—in fact, I suspect that the decision to release me had already been made at some high level—but, during one of my lengthy replies, the interrogator suddenly said, “Stop.  Get your things.  You will live.  You are free.”

Once the handcuffs were removed, I was handed my shoes and jacket, and it seemed as though they were the ones anxious to be rid of me.  With my eyes still taped shut, I was driven to a highway where one of the guards flagged down a passing taxi.  Another man ripped the tape off my eyes, pushed 10,000 dinars (six dollars) into my shirt pocket, and shoved me headfirst into the back of the cab.

I was free.