A Romeo and Juliet love story from Iraq

Mike and me in Baghdad in early April, 2006. He believed in love. I wonder if he still does.

Mike and me in Baghdad in April, 2006. He believed in love. I wonder if he still does.

I met Mike when sectarian strife exploded in Baghdad in 2006. That was not his real name, of course, but it was what he went by in his job as a translator for American soldiers.

Mike and I spent several evenings chatting at a coffee shop on the vast Camp Liberty complex. He was a smart well-spoken man with Antonio Banderas looks. He told me about his life in Iraq before the war. He taught computer science at a small Baghdad college and ran a photo processing shop.

He told me about the hope he’d held in 2003 after the ouster of Saddam, after which he worked as a security guard for Kellogg, Brown & Root. Eventually he found a job as an interpreter for the U.S. Army.

But things did not progress the way he’d expected and his homeland seemed on the verge of civil war.

The Georgia Army National Guard unit I was embedded with was then patrolling the streets of southwest Baghdad. Sometimes, Mike would peer out the sliver of a bullet-proof window in the back of a  Bradley Fighting Machine and look for a small stucco house on one of the main thoroughfares.

Over coffee one day, I asked him why he stared so intently through the glass.

“Asra,” he said.

“Asra? Who is that?” I asked.

She was the woman he adored. They shared dreams. Of going to Sulaimaniyah to see snow for the first time in their lives. Of getting married, having children.

He bought American shampoo for her from the PX at Liberty. She had long, thick hair, he told me.

Sometimes, he broke Baghdad’s curfew and snuck into Asra’s house late at night. They knew they could not be seen together.

But he could no longer do that. They knew their love could bring them serious trouble.

Mike was Shiite and Asra, Sunni.

Mike was unwanted as a Montague in the house of Capulet.

Mike wished Asra would stand on her balcony when the Bradley thundered past her house. But she didn’t step outside anymore. It wasn’t safe.

A month earlier, the bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra worsened the sectarian violence in Baghdad. I remember seeing bodies strewn on the streets of the capital. I could see that many had been tortured or mutilated or shot in the head, execution-style. Revenge killings soared. Neighborhoods in which Sunni and Shiite lived side by side went one way or the other. Thousands of Iraqis were driven from their homes.

I have been thinking of Mike a lot lately as I watch the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) insurgents battle towards Baghdad. I fear there will be all-out sectarian war. Sunni against Shiite. Blood spilled on the very soil where the division began with the killing in 680 AD of Muhammad’s grandsons in Kerbala.

We may never know modern-day Iraq again. I can see how borders might get redrawn. I am not necessarily opposed to that – the lines, after all, were drawn by the British to serve colonial interests and Iraq was, in many ways, an artificially assembled nation. But it is heartbreaking to see the carnage.

ISIS makes al Qaida look friendly. There have been reports of crucifixions, mass executions and beheadings. The atrocities make Iraq look like Yugoslavia on speed. That’s how Middle East politics expert Gareth Stansfield described the situation in a recent National Geographic interview.

I wonder if Mike and Asra were ever able to be together, start the family they wanted. I don’t have any way of contacting him anymore. I wish I did.

He told me once that it made no difference to him that Asra was Sunni, though her family didn’t see it that way. He saved a huge chunk of his American paycheck every month to build a house for Asra and himself in a Baghdad neighborhood that was then still very mixed.

He knew he was fighting the odds. He told me it would take a miracle to realize his dreams in a country fraught with war. But he wasn’t going to give up — he still believed in love.

I wonder if he still feels that way.

Remembering Ramadi as Iraq suffers again

Ramadi looked apocalyptic when the Sunni insurgency raged there in 2006.

Ramadi looked apocalyptic when the Sunni insurgency raged there in 2006.

I fought off tears as I read Sunday’s New York Times. The news from Iraq was horrifying.

A vicious civil war seems imminent as fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) point their guns toward Baghdad.

They are men who make al-Qaeda look like nice guys. And the Taliban, wimps.

They have taken over much of Nineveh province — Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and Tal Afar. They are now taking aim at Samarra and threatened to destroy a historic Shiite shrine there. An attack on that shrine in 2006 unleashed sectarian bloodshed. Entire neighborhoods in Baghdad and other places were ethnically cleansed.

I remember how hard it was after that to make amends.

I was in Anbar province when the Sons of Iraq program was just getting off the ground. It began with Sunni Sheik Sattar al-Rishawi who helped launch the Anbar Awakening, a movement to stop the extreme violence that had gripped Iraq’s only Sunni-majority province.

I patrolled with 1-9 Infantry soldiers who dubbed one neighborhood in Ramadi "the heart of darkness."

I patrolled with 1-9 Infantry soldiers who dubbed one neighborhood in Ramadi “the heart of darkness.”

Cities like Fallujah and Ramadi looked apocalyptic. I don’t think I saw a single building in Ramadi that had been spared from bullet holes.

I walked the streets of a Ramadi neighborhood called Melaab with Able Company of the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment. The soldiers called the place “the heart of darkness.”

When I asked residents what it was like to live there, they glided their right index finger across their throats. Sunni insurgents brazenly beheaded people in public and distributed videos of the executions.

Ramadi, back then, was the perhaps most dangerous place on Earth. And it was widely believed that the sheiks of Anbar were supporting the insurgents.

Then they began withdrawing that tacit support. I sat with Sheik al-Rishawi’s brother, Ahmed, to understand why his family and others had come around to helping the Americans establish peace.

He showed me his camels (see the photo at the top of my blog), sipped sweet chai and told me the people were just weary from that kind of extreme violence. His own father and brothers were killed by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

He invited U.S. commanders into his palatial home and talked strategy with them. Such friendships had seemed improbable just months ago but the sheiks were determined to bring peace.

From that movement came the Sons of Iraq. Insurgents who once pointed their guns at Americans and their Shiite brethren began to help keep the killing out of their territories. During the so-called surge in U.S. troops, the Sons of Iraq program was in full swing. The Americans paid them $10 a day to keep terrorism at bay.

When the Anbar Awakening first took hold, an uneasy calm came to Ramadi. I went to a polling station where people were voting in a city council election. Amazingly, there was no gunfire that day.

Outside, Capt. Jamey Gadoury, commander of 1-9 Inftantry’s Charlie Company, took his helmet and flak jacket off. We shared lamb and rice with community leaders and members of the Iraqi police.

There were three ways to deal with insurgents, Gadoury told me as he tore a piece of bread and scooped up a chunk of meat. “You either want to kill them, make them go away or get them on your side.”

“So what happened to the Sunni insurgents here?” I asked.

Gadoury stopped chewing and grinned, as though he were onto some awful secret.

“You’re eating with them, ” he told me.

I looked around and suddenly lost my appetite.

I think of my days in Anbar now as I read the tragedy unfolding in Iraq. All that ingenuity to befriend the enemy and make peace. Where did it all go?

Many have blamed Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for stirring Iraq’s cauldron of ethnic strife. Others have blamed President Barack Obama for withdrawing U.S. troops prematurely.

I won’t go into all the reasons I think that violence has come back with a venomous vengeance — I’ll save that for a later post.

I will only say this: my heart is broken.

No longer one

India now has a 29th state. Telangana.

It was six decades in the making, the fruit of a strong separatist movement that argued neglect by successive governments and finally succeeded in breaking off a chunk of land from Andhra Pradesh. The man who once went on a hunger strike in defense of Telangana, K. Chandrashekar Rao, became its first chief minister Monday.

The celebrations began Sunday night. Hyderabad, which will now serve as capital for both states, was awash in pink, the color of Rao’s party, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi.

India’s newly elected prime minister, Narendra Modi, hailed the newest state in the republic.

Amid the joy, however, there was reason for pause, especially among the citizens of Andhra who were against the carving up of their state. For economic reasons. For political reasons.

Proponents of Telangana argued that holding together different peoples under linguistic lines was silly; that it was better to have a more culturally cohesive state. Others pulled out proof that small states can prosper in India. The cited Uttarakhand and Chhatisgarh as examples.

It’s a good thing the two states will share Hyderabad, a city that was at the forefront of India’s high-tech boom and houses corporate giants like Infosys. I visited there in 2000 and remember being so impressed with the efficiency and cleanliness there compared to my hometown, Kolkata. Without Hyderabad, I worry Telangana might flounder.

I am always wary when states are split because I fear that it might lead to a deeper division of people. We certainly don’t need to add to that problem in India.

But now the deed is done. I hope for Andhra and its sister Telangana to both prosper. Only time will reveal if this was the right decision.

‘I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise, I rise, I rise’

 

I met Maya Angelou in 1983.

I worked for the Center for Participant Education at Florida State University and we had invited Angelou to speak on campus. I went with my friend Graciela Cuervo to fetch her at the Tallahassee airport, shook her hand and said: “Maya, I am so happy to finally meet you.”

She was a towering figure in so many ways. Even physically. She stood 6 feet tall.

She looked at me and said: “Ms. Basu, it’s Ms. Angelou.”

I was taken aback. I had not imagined her to be, well, so Diva-like.

She sent me all over town to find her an avocado sandwich. I moved her things from a west-facing room at the Holiday Inn because it was too hot. That night, at the event, I had to allow people to sit on the floor behind the podium on the stage — there were not enough seats in the auditorium. She didn’t like that and made it clear she didn’t. But on stage, she told everyone, in her resounding voice, how thrilled she was to be among them.

Others, including my friend Valerie Boyd, who curated the literary component of the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, have also spoken about how demanding Angelou could be. Journalist and writer A’Leila Bundles said she was dignity personified but sometimes haughty and over the top, according to folks who groused about the special items her contract required.

“Was the story about ​the rider requesting ​30 year old cognac true or apocryphal?” Bundles asked. “Th​at rumor​, and the way she carried herself ​ were the source of​ ​caricatures in recent years. ​How dare a little black girl speak with such precision and carry herself with such grace? Well, dare she did.”

If anyone had the right to be demanding, it was Angelou.

She grew up poor in a small Arkansas town, raised by a grandmother who assured a black girl in a brutally racist society that she was worthy, important and talented. She was pioneering in literature and wrote about the cruelty of Jim Crow like no other black woman had done before for wider audiences.

I was 16 when I read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” I was blown away.

Angelou gave voice to women of color. Her work continues to inspire generations of women, who, like me, drew from her words a strength to always live with pride.

The news of Angelou’s death spread quickly Wednesday. There are many obituaries and appreciations online. I urge you to read them, to learn more about a phenomenal woman.

Read the CNN obituary.

Here is Angelou’s poem, Phenomenal Woman:

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Memorial Day is not National BBQ Day

 

Arlington National Cemetery.

Arlington National Cemetery.

Occasionally, I pick up my iPhone and am pleasantly surprised to see an incoming call from a soldier I met in Iraq. The other night, it was Mike Brown, who helped train Iraqi security forces for a year in Baghdad.

He wanted nothing in general, nothing in particular. Just to say hello.

His call was a good reminder, just ahead of Memorial Day.

There’s a photo that went viral on Facebook and Twitter of a grill. The caption says: Memorial Day is not National BBQ Day. So true.

For many of us, the three-day weekend has become synonymous with the beach or hamburgers or a chance to get away. It means the start of summer, the start of lazy afternoons under a hot sun.

We are quick to forget the true meaning of the holiday.

Civil War depiction at Gettysburg National Military Park.

Civil War depiction at Gettysburg National Military Park.

It used to be known as Decoration Day and was started after the Civil War to remember the thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers who died on bloody battlefields. Later, Memorial Day became a remembrance of all men and women in uniform who gave their lives for America.

Mike Brown served in the 48th Infantry Brigade of the Georgia Army National Guard, which lost nearly 30 soldiers in the year it spent fighting in Iraq. I covered memorial services for the 48th as well as other brigades in Iraq that lost almost as many soldiers. I attended too many services.

They were men and women who lost their lives too young. They left behind shattered families and communities. I think of them and all our servicemen and women this weekend and salute their courage. I urge all of you to do the same.

India’s day of reckoning

photoBy Friday afternoon, everything should become clear.

Who did more than 500 million voters choose to lead India? India’s day of reckoning is here. Election results will be announced soon.

All week, there has been so much speculation and interpretation of exit polls that my head is spinning. By all guesses, Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party will become the next prime minister of my homeland.

Modi is known as a Hindu nationalist. He is controversial, polarizing. Under his watch, Gujarat suffered Hindu-Muslim carnage. But he also inspired voters who are fed up with the same old corruption and drudgery of government. For them, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and Congress stopped delivering, despite being the party of independence and freedom.

People in India are hungry for change. They grew disappointed after India failed to launch, as it were. How many people predicted India would be the next Asian tiger? But the growth slowed and India is still a poor nation that lags far behind rival China.

Today, I received my Overseas Citizenship of India certificate. With OCI status. I am entitled to most of the rights and privileges I once had as a citizen of India, except I can’t vote. I wished that I had been able to in this landmark Indian election.

I cannot say who I supported — I am a journalist, after all. But I can say this: I hope, for the sake of my homeland, someone steps in and cleans up government. I am done paying bribes and drowning in bureaucracy and dealing with inefficiency.

I am done waiting for India to arrive.

Read my India stories on CNN.com:

http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2014/04/world/india-hotel-death/index.html

http://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2013/11/world/india-rape/

http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/26/world/asia/india-rogue-tiger/

http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/22/health/india-end-of-polio/

 

Looking like change in India

india-voter

Voters in India get their fingers marked with indelible ink after casting a ballot.

Today was the last day of polling in India’s mammoth parliamentary elections. Five weeks of voting; Nine polling days; 814 million eligible voters; 543 Lok Sabha (lower House) seats.

From all the exit polling I’ve seen, it looks like the worst loss ever for the Indian National Congress, the party of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi that for so many years led an independent India.

But people are fed up with corruption and inefficiency. The polls show a huge victory in the making for Narendra Modi, a self-avowed Hindu nationalist.

Modi has been a controversial and polarizing figure in India. Hindu-Muslim violence under his watch in 2002 earned him the nickname, “The butcher of Gujarat.”

But Modi’s Bharaitya Janata Party is known as entrepreneurial and business-friendly. That’s why a lot of people I know in India voted for Modi in the election, the largest ever in the history of mankind.

Exit polls have been proven grossly wrong in the past in India. But still, it’s not looking good for Congress. I think there are big changes looming in my homeland.

Read my story on Varanasi, a city that was the epicenter of the election on CNN.com.