Archive for the ‘Iraqis’ Category

Mr. H & Iffat

November 13, 2009


The man who wrote this letter to me in the winter of 2006-07 was one of the Iraqi engineers on my staff. He has two sons in their teens, and while they were growing up, the family lived in a three by three meter room. With the money Iffat earns now, he’s having a proper house built for his family.

Mr. H was a contractor’s engineer on one of my projects. His thirteen year old son was kidnapped in front of his house, and held for five days before they found him. Three or four months before that, the same man’s father was kidnapped. The father was held for twenty days before they could pay enough money to the kidnappers to have him released. Through all of this, Mr. H’s mother was very sick with cancer.

Hello Seren,
Mr. Ali called me just now and told me that his son was released
and he is in his home. You are absolutely right that Iraq is
a hard place to live in but what can we do, the other choices
are very hard. some times i think that i must go out side to
protect my family and to build a good future to my sons but
it's not easy. When i was in Libya, some of my Friends traveled
and went to Europe and they asked me to go with them, i told
them that Iraq will change to a paradise after the collapsing of
Saddam's regime so we don't need to go outside Iraq to live
because the foreign people will come to Iraq for work and tourism,
also i told them that all our problems are from one source which
is Saddam but i was wrong.

Many thanks,




Faaris – 1

November 12, 2009

“Is it a good thing that Saddam is gone?” I ask Faaris, one of my Iraqi engineers. I know from other conversations with Faaris that he has high hopes for his country now, believing in the possibilities that some form of democracy might offer. But I know he thinks all around any subject and is honest about difficult things, so I wonder what nuances he might teach me in answering this stark inquiry. He lived a few years in Scotland when he was young, and besides giving his English an amusing bit of Scottish brogue, living in the UK seems to have graced him with a willingness to answer almost any question I put to him, no matter how impertinent. My other engineers seem more wary with political subjects.

 “Is it better without Saddam?” Faaris says. He looks off at middle distance for a few seconds. “In the days of Saddam,” he says when he has his thoughts in order, “my wife never had to wear a scarf over her hair. This was not important to anyone. The schools were open to all children, and the night clubs and theatres were open.”

I offer him a cigarette. He lights both mine and his own.

He blows out the smoke slowly. “In the time of Saddam,” he adds with a shrug, “You could take your friends to the restaurants and have a drink of whiskey. You could buy alcohol in the stores and drink it in your house.”

Then he smiles. “Now I buy whiskey like I’m doing a deal for marijuana,” he tells me. He pulls up his collar and looks around as if to be sure no one is watching. “I’m like this in the street, buying a bottle of whiskey from the trunk of a man’s car …” He makes the motion of dealing out some cash to his dealer, looking over his shoulder to be sure the coast is clear. He grabs the imaginary bottle and quickly tucks it under his arm, inside his shirt.

“I am a criminal!” he cries, and we laugh.

“Seren,” he says then, lowering his voice, leaning forward to look directly into my eyes, “during Saddam we had personal freedom but we had no political freedom. Now we have political freedom, but we have no personal freedom. Who can say that one is better than the other?”

His own eyes carry a look of thoughtful resignation.



Hakim – 2

November 12, 2009

Hakim’s eyes are still large and haunted two days after the Brit Mil battle outside his house.

“A jet dive-bombed straight at our house as we looked out the window, Seren,” he says, leaning toward me, his hands jerking in agitation. “We thought it would drop a bomb on our house! The women were screaming and the children were crying. The jet turned at the last moment, lifting back up without dropping anything. We thought we would all die.”

His eyes are pleading, but I don’t know what I can give him. I apologize to him and tell him many times how thankful I am that he and his family weren’t hurt. My words seemed criminally inadequate.


Hakim – 1

November 12, 2009

Tonight the Brit Mil runs an op in the city. On the way in they hit a string of IEDs, then get tangled up in a prolonged battle. Explosions light up the distant horizon. Every once in awhile the deep and prolonged low blast of a really big piece of weaponry bumps the air. The concussion is so low and deep, outside a war zone the sound wouldn’t even be noticed. But we’re fine tuned. If someone drops a book in the opposite wing of the office, a couple people hit the deck on our side.

I stand outside in the dark listening to the battle, guns and tanks a far off rumble. Otherwise the night is like any other: hot and still.

As I step into the office to grab a bottle of water out of the cooler by the reception area door, Crazy Rob rushes out from the office wing. “One of my Iraqi engineers just called me from the city, Seren!” His face is red and he’s clearly agitated.

I’ve been standing quietly outside for twenty minutes, listening but deliberately not thinking. About anything. I hardly ever get to do that. What Rob’s just said takes a few long seconds to sink in, and then I can’t connect it to anything. “From the city … ?” I echo dumbly, wondering why he’s so worked up about that. It’s night, so of course the engineer is calling from the city, from his home.

“They’re shooting at his house!” Rob says. “The Brits are fighting in the city and they’re shooting at his house!

Now I have a different disconnect. “He called you on his cell phone?” I ask stupidly. “In the middle of a firefight?”

“Yes! Yes!” Rob shouts, which is not necessarily a fair indication of anything since he shouts all the time; his voice is as large as his bearlike body. But his face is red and his eyes are big and his grin is nervous. “Did you hear them fighting? You can hear it if you go outside! He called me, then he got cut off!”

“What did he say?” I ask stupidly, wondering what one could possibly find to say on a cell phone from the middle of a battle. LTC Corviday wanders into the room in his sweaty PT clothes and grabs a bottle of water out of the cooler.

“What did who say?” Crowsie asks us. “What are you worked up about tonight, Robbie?” He holds a bottle of water out toward me, raising his eyebrows. I take it from him without answering his questions, still processing this whole scene.

“One of my engineers just called me from the battle!” Rob repeated for Crowsie. “His house is right in the middle of it!”

“He called you from his cell phone?!” Crowsie asks, incredulous, laughing. Good – so I’m not the only one who thinks this is bizarre. “What did he have to say? How’s the battle going?”

Rob is practically hopping up and down by now, clearly having expected some other response than our laconic confusion. “He said,” Rob shouted, “The British are shooting at my house! We’re all on the floor to hide from the bullets! Then we lost the connection! I could hear the women and children screaming, and the battle going on in the background!”

Crowsie and I look at each other blankly for a moment, then both burst out laughing.

“Why did he call you?” I ask Rob. “Does he think you can call off the Brits or something?”

“Yeah!” Crowsie cries. “Get on the phone to Brit command! Tell them to quit shooting at our engineers!”

Crowsie and I are laughing again, loving it.

Crowsie crouches in the characteristic pounce-stance he gets when he’s about to play out something good. “Excuse me, Brit command? Yes? This is Rob over at B- …” Crowsie says with a calm but worried expression and his hand held to his face as if holding a phone receiver, “I need you to call off some of your guns in the city. We’ve got engineers living there. What? No, I don’t have an address. Can your high tech whiz kid equipment stuff zero in on a cell phone and just avoid shooting at that? Huh? Oh sure, hey this is great – let me give you the number …”

I’m bent over laughing, and Crazy Rob is calming down a little bit, laughing with us.

“Hey, we could go get them, Seren!” Rob cries. “You and me – you’re game, aren’t you?”

Sure, I’m all caught up now. “You go snag a white pickup from the construction site next door,” I tell him. “I’ll go find a couple sheets. It’s dark. If we put them on like robes we can get to the city, no problem …”

“Then we just flash our IDs when the Brits stop us,” Rob shouted. “We’re in! Hell, the Brits might even give us an escort!”

“Are you nuts!” I cry, “They’re going to be way too busy! Once we’re in the city we’ll be on our own.”

“Let’s grab a couple of your PSD guys,” Rob suggests. “They can take care of any Brits that mistake us for Iraqis – you know, if we can’t get the robes off quick enough!”

“Right!” I agree, already running through the teams in my mind, picking the guys I want with me. “I’ll round them up while you steal the pickup …get a beat up one if you can …”

This cracks us all up again. Is there any other kind?!

“I’ll go put on some cocoa,” Crowsie says, heading for the door. “You guys are gonna want a little pick-me-up by the time you get home …”

Crazy Rob and I spend another half hour fine-tuning our plan, getting closer and closer to believing we could pull it off while we wait in vain for Hakim to call again.

… Just another day in the land of tangible terror and pain. Later I lie awake in bed, wondering whether Hakim is still alive.