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.

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou? At the arena in Verona, of course

The Arena in Verona’s Piazza Bra
I’d been up for many, many hours – too many to count, I think, after a day of work at CNN, a trans-Atlantic flight and a train ride from Venice.
But when I finally stepped foot in Verona and realized I could watch Romeo and Juliet performed at the Arena di Verona, perhaps the most famous outdoor opera venue, I felt a second wind. http://www.arena.it/en-US/HOMEen.html
Dinner with Mary Foster Batten

Before heading out, I had dinner with Mary Foster Batten, a fellow visitor from Ireland whom I’d met at the lobby of the Hotel Novo Rossi. 

We shared pizza with prosciutto and funghi and glasses of fine Valpolicella. And fine conversation. And then I was off to the Arena.
I took my seat, high above the stage, under fragments of columns that have stood since AD 30. It’s a remnant of Roman glory, like the Coliseum in Rome. Except the Verona Arena is still vibrant, still a place where thousands go to watch.
I took my seat high above the stage in a Roman
arena that was 2,000 years old.

No more gladiators and fights to the death. But mellifluous music.

As in the voice of Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak in the role of Juliet and American tenor John Osborn as Romeo.  And so it began. Lucky for me that I knew so many lines of Shakespeare’s tragedy. “Oh Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name; Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love. And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
A bust of Shakespeare
in central Verona

There were no translations offered at the Verona Arena, no sub-titling. I might have been lost had it not been for a story so familiar. A couple in front of me bought a libretto. But as the sun faded, darkness befell our seats, the only lights reflecting off the stage and from the stars above.

Juliet’s statue
at the real house of
Capulet
I was told that the opera’s start depends on the sun’s timetable. On this magnificent July evening, the first notes sounded at 9:15 p.m. It ended at near 1 a.m., by which time I was awake purely on the fumes of excitement.
The next morning, after a breakfast of prosciutto e meloni, I ventured out into Verona, eager to see the house of the real-life Capulets and the famous verandah where Romeo and Juliette’s love for one another was sealed.
At an old castle overlooking the river in Verona
It is, of course, somewhat of a tourist trap. But I looked at Juliet’s statue and gazed upward at the walls of the massive house and began to understand why Shakespeare was inspired to write his tale.
 
Next stop: Venice