Sunday, October 29, 2006

Memories of an Iraqi American

1982 - 1990

When we returned to the US in 1982 we were very poor, and my parents struggled to pay the bills and keep moving forward, but they were always able to put food on the table. In 1983 we got Green Cards, and both my parents began working legally. Eventually they found jobs worthy of their education, and they were able to buy a house in 1985. After we moved into that house our situation began to improve. I started high school, and it was there when I realized for the first time that my experience in Iraq was a good thing. The last two years I spent in Iraq toughened me - I learned how short and unfair life can be. I learned that sometimes, hot water is simply not available - sometimes even cold water is not available! We spent many nights studying by lantern in Iraq. I spent 7th grade studying everything in Arabic, except English of course. I was very good at English, and pretty good at math, but I had trouble reading Arabic. History was a difficult subject. My parents helped, but it took me a LONG time to get through a few pages in Arabic.

I learned how to study hard, and when I started school in the US, I did fairly well because it was easier than school in Iraq. With my dad's help, I did well academically in high school. In 1986 my parents and I were invited to a ceremony at which students were recognized for their academic achievements. During the ceremony, my father told my mother that his best friend in Iraq (the Sunni Arab from Samarra) had been murdered earlier that year by the regime. I was shocked to hear this news, and my mother held back tears. My father was sad, but not surprised. His friend - our friend - was, kind, intelligent, and most gracious. He never abused his power and remained loyal to his friends. He was a wonderful father - I had a crush on his daughter.

In 1988 I started college, and the Iran-Iraq war finally ended. That year I saw a 60 Minutes report about Hallabja - for the first time the mainstream media in the US began to take a close look at the crimes of Saddam's regime. I was horrified by what Saddam's regime did to those poor people. That's when I began to think that the Kurds must have their own country. Despite the negative attention paid by the media to Iraq, it seemed as though things were looking up for Iraqis in the late 80s. The war had ended, and Iraqis were beginning to return to normal life. One of my cousins in Baghdad set up an airconditioning business with the help of an American company - apparently working with the Americans was not such a big deal back then - he did very well for himself.

In 1990, we became US citizens. One month later, Iraq invaded Kuwait.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Picasso's Guernica

In the comments section of the post below somebody asked me when the mural in Baghdad (pic below) was built. It was built before my time, and so I Googled 'Baghdad mural Picasso Guernica' and discovered that Picasso's painting depicts the Nazi bombing of a Basque village during the Spanish Civil War. 'Over 1,600 civilians perished in the world's first sustained aerial bombardment of a civilian population'. Until yesterday I thought it was a depiction of the Spanish Civil War only, as I read at the British Museum in 2003 (maybe there was more to read). I discovered something else from this website. A reproduction of this painting was hanging at the entrance of the UN Security Council until they took it down a few weeks before the bombing of Iraq in 2003. I did not know that.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Memories of an Iraqi American


I was born in Baghdad, Iraq. My family moved to the USA in 1975, and we moved back to Iraq in 1980, after my father got his degree. It was June, 1980 when we flew from Denver to London for an extended visit with many relatives there. That summer in England my father learned that two of his nephews (older cousins of mine) had been murdered by Saddam Hussein's regime earlier that year. They were both very religious and active in politics, and they were probably recruited by the Da'wa party, which was inspired by the Islamic Revolution in Iran the previous year. When Saddam took over as Iraqi President he and his cronies exterminated Da'wa in Iraq and anybody who dare mention the Islamic Revolution. Upon hearing this news, my mother, who wasn't keen on returning to Saddam's Iraq anyway, tried to convince my father to stay in the UK for a while longer. My father, who won a scholarship from the Iraqi government in 1974, insisted on returning to Iraq. He felt obligated to work for the Iraqi government - in fact the agreement was that he would work for them for at least two years after receiving his degree. He was also looking forward to working with his best friend (an educated Sunni Arab from Sammarra), who had already risen to a high rank at the Oil Ministry. My father was also convinced that Saddam would not last long in Iraq. So in late July we boarded a ferry with our new Volvo, filled with our belongings and all of us, crossed the English Channel and began our long drive from Belgium to Baghdad. Two weeks after we moved into our home, Iraq invaded Iran.

When the war began, Saddam's government immediately restricted travel outside of Iraq to government employees who were assigned to travel abroad and to people with medical emergencies. The Iraqi army began drafting young men shortly after the war began. Many of my cousins and uncles were drafted, and although they did not believe in the war, they had no choice. The alternative was prison, death, or desertion. One of our cousins, on my mother's side of the family, decided to desert after being deployed to near the Iranian border. He disappeared in 1981. His parents did not know of his plan to desert, and when he didn't show up for his leave they thought he was killed, so they went to the army headquarters in Baghdad to inquire about their son. The army's response was that he deserted, and that his family was therefore responsible for treason. One of their other sons had been branded an Islamic a few months earlier - he was arrested and murdered in jail, so the family was already suspected of breeding Islamics. That same night men from the Mukhabarat showed up at their home and arrested all of them - everybody in the immediate family - three boys aged 4, 7 and 10, two teenaged girls, two college aged men, the parents, and the 80-year old grandmother. They were taken to a jail (more like a concentration camp) outside of Baghdad. The grandmother died there three months later. The rest spent four years there with hundreds of other people. My parents visited them in jail twice, and both times my parents could not believe what they saw. They saw kids sucking on bottles - babies in JAIL. The two teenage girls spent their high school years in jail, but at least they got to study there. In Saddam's Iraq, it was common for the Mukhabarat to take substitute prisoners - if the suspect could not pay his crimes, his relatives would. We still see this kind of thing today - just last week the brother of the chief judge in the trial of Saddam Hussein was murdered. It is intended to discourage people from committing such grievous acts as being a member of an Islamic party that does not agree with the government and may even talk about how foolish it is to war with a Muslim neighbor. This practice of taking substitute prisoners continued up until 2003, and many times the prisoners paid for their relatives' "crimes" "with their lives (scroll down about half way down to section 4 to read about what happened to Um Haydar in 2000)

In the summer of 1982 my sister was diagnosed with diabetes, and although my parents were devastated by this news, they saw it as an opportunity to leave the country. My parents asked the Iraqi government if they could take the family to England, where my sister would receive better medical care. We were allowed to leave without my father. Later that year my father was sent to Vienna to represent Iraq in an OPEC meeting. On the last day of the meeting, instead of boarding the plane to Baghdad, he flew to London. We were reunited. We were very lucky.

We were lucky again to get Visas to the US, and eventually we were back in Colorado. It was surreal when I woke up that October morning and looked at the Rocky Mountains. We were very lucky to be out of Iraq and lucky to be in the US, but we still had to secure Green Cards, and that is not an easy thing for immigrants to do. My father already had Amensty International reports (God bless them for reporting on Saddam's crimes early on) on torture and murder committed by Saddam's regime against political opponents, and he figured that political asylum would be the easiest way to get Green Cards, so he hired a lawyer to help us. The lawyer studied the reports and the entire case and advised my father that applying for political asylum would be a waste of time, because Saddam was an ally of Washington at the time. We wanted to stay in this great country inspite of Washington's screwed up foreign policy, so we found another way to get our Green Cards, and eventually we became US citizens, and here I am today writing about what happened to us in Iraq without fear of being killed, tortured, or imprisoned.'

The Monument of Freedom mural in Baghdad inspired by Picasso's 1937, Guernica painting which depicted the Nazi bombardment of Guernica, a Basque village in Spain, during the Spanish Civil War of 1936. This picture was taken by my father in the 70s.

Update Oct 24, 2011: I had to update the link to a website describing Picasso's Guernica and I found this: "Guernica shows the tragedies of war and the suffering it inflicts upon individuals, particularly innocent civilians. "
commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.