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 felt small standing amid the Roman ruins in Jerash.
I marvel at the building accomplishments of people who lived so long ago; they intended to make structures last. How many slaves gave their lives in constructing magnificence not even an earthquake could fully take away?
I think of how I’d stood in this exact place more than a decade ago, when war seemed imminent in Iraq and I was in Jordan, waiting for a visa to fly into Baghdad. Just as I was now.
Time seems fleeting – and not.
Back in December of 2002, no one knew for sure what would become of Iraq. How George Bush would invade, drop bombs, send the world’s most powerful military in to destroy Saddam Hussein.
No one knew what would come next – a de-Bathification program that purged Iraq institutions of knowledge and expertise and left an occupying U.S. force with the daunting task of running a nation.
No one knew how American soldiers and Iraqi civilians would fall. One after another. In roadside bombings, firefights and attacks from an enemy that was often unseen. Or how Iraq would fall into chaos; Sunni fighting Shiite to the point that everyone assumed the worst of a civil war.
I stand under a cloudless sky in Jerash. It is late February but the chill that is normal for this time of air is gone. It is warm. The sun, bright. Like in Baghdad.
I will be there soon, 10 long years after the first time I visited.
Saddam’s face was everywhere then, a constant reminder of the consequences of stepping outside the boundaries of subservient Iraqi life. I remember clearly when I walked down the jetway from the Royal Jordanian plane at Saddam International Airport. “Down With the USA!,” it said. There was no mistaking where I had just arrived.
I was frightened and alone as I navigated my way through the maze of Iraqi controls for the foreign media. I was even afraid to close my eyes at night in my twin bed on a sixth-floor room at the Al Rashid Hotel. I knew someone was watching. Or listening. Or both.
On that trip, I met good people who had given up on life after years of conflict and punishing sanctions that robbed Iraq of material goods and normalcy of life.
A doctor who had no access to modern medicine, current journals or technology. A professor who sat under empty bookshelves – he had sold them all to feed his family. And a bookseller who hoped to make a living hawking outdated computer science books along with “the Great Gatsby” and “War and Peace” on the sidewalks of Al Mutanabi Street.
Where were they all now, I wondered? How their hopes must have risen an plunged like the tides of the oceans. I know I will probably not find them again now – after a decade of war, a decade of convulsion.
But I cannot wait to see Baghdad again. The way it was without American tanks and Humvees. I am anxious to see how the Iraqi capital is faring a decade after the war began and forever changed the course of Iraqi history.
I leave Jerash, my face pressed against the car window, all the way back to Amman. Soon I will be in Iraq, where I spent so many months of my life covering the war. In the midst of tragedy, I came to know a land that I loved in a way that is not always understandable. Perhaps it was because I saw the very best of humanity in conditions that were the worst.