By Scott Peterson | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
BAGHDAD – Not long before the fall of Saddam Hussein, the two Iraqi men frequented some of the same intellectual circles in Baghdad.
They drank tea with friends at Shabandar Cafe, holding long discussions near the Friday book market in the heart of Old Baghdad. They attended the antique auction – where this reporter first met them – held every other Friday night in a dim but inviting shop crammed with dusty artifacts.
But three years later, their lives have been touched very differently by the US occupation, and by its soldiers. The men’s trajectories have forced them to confront a wrenching decision: whether to reorient their lives in a radically changed Iraq – or to leave their homeland.
As US forces rumbled toward Baghdad, Esam Pasha al-Allawy, with his thick beard and long black hair, was gaining ground as a young artist who talked up his paintings as the auctioneer gaveled gilt chairs and old swords.
Bassim Sulaiman was an established antique dealer with an air of high learning, who chain-smoked his way through each auction, seeking out customers and friends, as well as deals for his antique shop.
Today, Mr. Allawy says he is fully experiencing the American dream – a rare enough event these days for any Iraqi. But after three years of violence in his homeland, Allawy says that the promise of freedom carried by US forces when they invaded Iraq can only be found in one place: America itself.
Allawy left the car bombs, killing, and chronic danger behind, and was invited by a Minnesota gallery to visit last spring. Earlier this year he exhibited work in New York – as part of the first east coast showing by Iraqi artists. He has spent the past six months living in New London, Conn., in a "dream" studio as an artist-in-residence at the Griffis Art Center.
"This is a great experience; the horizon is wide open here," says Allawy, in a telephone interview. "People are very nice and cooperative. Iraq is also a melting pot, with so many religions and ethnic groups. So in Iraq nobody is a foreigner, and it’s the same in America."
Allawy’s grant ends this month, and he will apply for asylum in the US. But the path from his tiny Baghdad apartment and studio has been difficult and dangerous.
Allawy had mixed emotions about the US arrival, and what it would mean for his beloved city. But just after the regime fell, he said it felt like "my first time in the outside world."
His first contacts with American troops were "gentle" because "we [Iraqis] were gentle with them." But he warned then that "hoping is not enough. We must act, and take [government] out of the hands of the Americans before it is too late."
An optimist by nature, the tall, barrel-chested Allawy is a former Iraqi national judo champion. He began working as a translator for US units a week after they arrived, quickly picking up the nickname "Jesus" because of his looks. His job with the 101st Airborne and later the Florida National Guard, was made easier because he was with "good units," he said at the time, which did not partake in heavy-handed raids that alienated many Iraqis.
But the close calls began to add up, as Iraqis working for Americans began to be targeted by insurgents. One fellow translator was killed. And besides working nights for US units at five dollars a day – raised later to $12 a day – Allawy also worked for Western journalists.
One incident in Najaf in August 2003 sticks with him, and has convinced him not to "try his luck again" by staying in Iraq. While working with this correspondent in the aftermath of a car bomb that killed a ranking Shiite cleric, we were first trapped in a hotel by an angry mob, and then escaped – only to have an Iraqi point toward Allawy and yell "Wahhabi!" because of his looks.
Believing that Sunni Wahhabi extremists had killed the cleric, Shiite crowds chased us down narrow alleyways. Eventual rescue by Iraqi police took more than an hour to arrange, as crowds threw stones into a courtyard where we had taken shelter. I had to wrap my arms around Allawy, and we were ringed by police with bulletproof vests, as we made our way through the irate crowd to waiting police vehicles.
"In Iraq, either you work and be in danger, or you stay at home and do nothing," says Allawy, who changed his routine every day in Baghdad, leaving and arriving home at different times, and changing his routes. "People even get killed going shopping, so you may as well work."
But Allawy’s art suffered, even though he had realized one aspect of his post-Saddam dream, of painting a large mural at the Labor Ministry on an edifice that before had lionized the dictator with a 3-by-4 meter portrait.
Also tough has been the deteriorating situation in Iraq. But, he says, "It’s not the Americans or the Iraqis to blame, or the soldiers and politicians – it’s everyone." Having seen the US occupation from the inside, as a translator, gives Allawy pause, before voicing the knee-jerk opposition to the US presence heard from most Baghdadis today.
"The necessity of the situation makes you act a certain way; [sometimes it] forces you to be rude, and there is no time to win hearts and minds," says Allawy. Iraqis and Americans need to learn more about each other, he says, and to meet each other.
"I have more friends in the US than in Iraq," laughs Allawy. But ironically, it is Allawy’s time in America that has made it more dangerous for him to return to Iraq. He has been the subject of a handful of stories on Western and Iraqi TV channels, about his art and the start of a new life.
"People in the street will recognize you, and say: ‘You worked for the Americans! You were in America!’ " notes Allawy, who says he is already 10 chapters into a book about his experiences. "Now the threat [in Baghdad] is more and more for me than before."
The antique dealer
Bassim Sulaiman never calls that momentous day in April 2003 the "fall of Baghdad." Instead he calls it the "fall of Saddam," because it was then he knew that he would never again have to entice customers to the downstairs gallery of his antique shop – as he did to this correspondent just before the war – to whisper curses against the Iraqi dictator.
The regal antiquary didn’t want war in his country, but he grew up taught by Jesuit Fathers, had known a number of Americans, and tasted their generosity. He wanted to give the self-described "liberators" of Iraq a chance.
"When people would speak badly about the Americans, I said: ‘No, don’t be so quick to judge them,’ " recalls Sulaiman. "I used to give them excuses: ‘They are young, they can make mistakes. They can’t tell good Iraqis from bad Iraqis.’ "
But Sulaiman’s story of how that initial, cautious optimism turned to angry opposition to US forces in the course of three years – as high expectations fell prey to violence and even small, inadvertent humiliations – has been repeated often across Iraq.
"Before [the Americans] started messing up, I opened my arms to them," says Sulaiman. "We have a history of resistance. My grandfather fought the British, and my father fought the British. I never thought that I would fight anybody, but here we are with the Americans."
Sulaiman says he first started to see mistakes, such as the arrival of exile Iraqis slotted into positions of power; they were people who had been away so long that their accents had changed. Violence also began to take root, making it more difficult for Sulaiman to travel from his house in upmarket Mansour neighborhood to his shop elsewhere in Baghdad.
"I’m not going there every day," laments Sulaiman. "It’s too far, and you never know what is in the road." He has, in fact, not visited the shop for eight months, and the two women who run it might call with big sales of $2,000 or $3,000 two days in a row, and then sell nothing for months.
While keeping a close watch over the large collection of original paintings in his home – many purchased as families left before and during the 2003 conflict – Sulaiman’s first love has turned into more of a hobby. He now manages four large companies owned by a friend he has known since he was a boy.
"I did not think of leaving," scoffs Sulaiman. "I thought: ‘If I leave, then who will stay? The idiots, the thieves, and the bombmakers?’ "
That disdain is not just reserved for Iraqis and their ineffective politicians. Sulaiman’s optimism about the Americans began to deflate with a small incident in late 2004.
He watched as a Humvee rear-ended a car in his district. "The [Iraqi] man got out – he was probably feeding seven kids – his bumper falls off, and his mouth was wide open," says Sulaiman. "The American comes out, and laughs, and says, ‘Oh, sorry,’ and drives off. Ever since then, I have been disturbed."
Sulaiman is also concerned with the quality of "democracy" being preached in Iraq. He met one man in the street at 10 a.m., drinking the licorice-flavored Arak liquor. When Sulaiman asked him what he was doing, the man replied: "This is democracy."
"Iraqis don’t know what democracy is…. If they were serious, [Americans] would print a leaflet for kindergartens, telling them the meaning of democracy and freedom," says Sulaiman. "Most important is to explain why it doesn’t interfere with religion, that you can be both democratic and religious."
But Sulaiman’s concerns were soon pushed to the limit. While his family of four slept in one room in June 2005, US forces launched an overnight raid. Soldiers fast-roped from helicopters, used explosives to blast open three entrances to the house, and within seconds had their guns trained on Sulaiman.
"They made a mess of the house, a real mess. You couldn’t walk because of the glass," says Sulaiman. The soldiers asked for the name of a man he did not know, and then bundled him into a Humvee for questioning. Before he left, Sulaiman told his 26-year-old epileptic son: "Don’t worry, they are a bunch of cowards, and your father is a strong man."
When the US troops took off his blindfold at a facility near the airport, they scolded him: "You were talking and cursing, when guns were pointed at you."
"Yes, because I am in my country. You are not in your country," Sulaiman retorted. "I told them: ‘I was raised by Americans, they were hospitable. But I have never met any like you.’ "
The soldiers eventually realized their mistake, apologized, paid $500 to cover the cost of damage, and showed him a map with his house marked out in red – thanks to a false tip-off, they said, from a neighbor. A final bottle of white table wine, as a goodwill gift, was not enough to change his mind; Sulaiman’s $6,000 claim has been filed with the US embassy in Amman.
"If they turned the country into something livable I would forgive them – I would love them!" exclaims Sulaiman. "But from what I see, it is worse and worse."