Surviving terror: Confessions of an Iraqi translator
Ahmed Abdullah put himself in danger by volunteering to help coalition forces inside Iraq. Now a prison guard in Lawton, OK, Abdullah dreams of becoming a U.S. citizen.
Watching the men approach, Ahmed Abdullah readied the Glock 9 mm pistol in his lap and waited.
Traffic had stalled, as it often did, on Main Supply Route Tampa. American forces somewhere ahead were sweeping for improvised explosive devices, turning the highway from Balad south to Baghdad into a makeshift motor camp. Parked vehicles, scattered haphazardly on and off the pavement, had disgorged their occupants into the summer heat. People stood in clusters to talk or walked in search of a breeze.
Videoview all videos
Aug 15Ahmed Abdullah put himself in danger by volunteering to...
Photoview all 12 photos
Not all of the vehicles were empty, though. Abdullah, for one, remained in his sweltering Ford Windstar minivan, leaning outside the driver's side window. His face betrayed no evidence of the fear that was trickling like perspiration down his spine.
Surrounded by danger
Abdullah, now 31, was no stranger to terror. He'd lived with it his entire life; by now it was as familiar as hunger and discomfort. All three were the product of growing up in an Iraq governed by dictator Saddam Hussein and the Sunni-led Ba'ath Party.
Hussein had risen to power through luck and intention. He was an early member of the revolutionary Baathists, who merged a wave of nationalistic fervor with socialism. Hussein failed in an attempt to assassinate a government official, then survived exile and imprisonment to become a political strongman, officially taking power as Iraq's president in 1979.
The occasion was marked by blood. Hussein immediately denounced many of his fellow Baathists as traitors, and within two weeks, hundreds had been executed.
Hussein was a Sunni, like Abdullah and about 80 to 90 percent of Muslims worldwide. In Iraq, though, the majority population is Shi'a. The two major Islamic sects are much the same but divide along some theological, legal, economic and social lines. Both suffered under Hussein's totalitarian regime.
“Hussein ... was one of the world's indisputably evil men: He murdered as many as a million of his people, many with poison gas,” Dexter Filkins wrote for The New York Times Magazine in 2007. “He tortured, maimed and imprisoned countless more. His unprovoked invasion of Iran is estimated to have left another million people dead. His seizure of Kuwait threw the Middle East into crisis.
“More insidious, arguably, was the psychological damage he inflicted on his own land. Hussein created a nation of informants — friends on friends, circles within circles — making an entire population complicit in his rule.”
Abdullah was raised in Baghdad, but at age 13, he moved with his family to Balad, a community of about 70,000 people about 50 miles to the north. His father was a judge. The family was Sunni by tradition but not by practice; religion was dangerous, and they lived in a Shi'a neighborhood.
The family had a large home — five bedrooms, two showers, an expansive lawn — but little money. Access to essential services was sporadic.
“Saddam said it on TV,” Abdullah recalled. “No water and no electricity because of U.S. sanctions.”
What they did have, at least when the power was on, was access to two state-run television stations. One of them, operated by Saddam's son Uday Hussein, broadcast American movies at night. Abdullah and a friend watched whenever they could, fueling a growing obsession with the western world.
That obsession only increased when they discovered Metallica.
For years, Sunni rebels and insurgents loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had peppered Main Supply Route Tampa with explosives. By now, in 2006, what was once a smooth highway had become a ragged honeycomb of potholes and drop-offs. The tactic not only caused civilian and military deaths from explosions, but also left stopped travelers on Tampa open to carjacking, abduction and murder.
Drivers were left with two options: Hunker down with other travelers on Tampa or risk turning off on dirt roads. The latter choice, Abdullah knew, was more perilous; alone on the rough tracks you were most vulnerable to predators. So he stayed with the pack, enduring the heat and checking his mirrors for signs of trouble.
It was 1997, and Abdullah was sick of Arabic love songs. He wanted something new, something edgy, something he'd never heard before.
He just didn't know what.
He knew of only two record stores in the entire country. Neither had large collections of American music. Owning it, listening to it — that was suspicious behavior. Still, he and his friend decided to risk it.
Music stores in Iraq don't operate the way they do here, or at least they didn't back when Abdullah was a teen. The stores sold pirated recordings. Customers made their selections and handed the shopkeeper a cassette tape. For a price, the shop owner dubbed the original recording onto the customer's tape.
At one of the shops, Abdullah and his friend found a dusty copy of Metallica's 1996 album “Load.” They tried to buy it, but the shopkeeper said the tape they'd brought with them was too old to use. Money was so tight Abdullah's father had to take out a loan to buy them a new tape. Soon they were listening to metal music for the first time.
It seemed like nonsense. They loved it.
“They were screaming and everything,” Abdullah said. “I couldn't understand anything. I got my father to buy me an English dictionary. We'd play that tape over and over, trying to figure out the words.”
Watching movies on TV became more important. They'd try to memorize dialogue, work out the spellings and look them up in the dictionary. Once they went to a Baathist cyber cafe in Baghdad, intending to search for lyrics to the Metallica songs, but there was no privacy, and they feared they'd get in trouble.
“The West, the American ideology, you shouldn't mess with that,” he said. “You can't get close to it.”
Word by word, though, they were teaching themselves English. At first it was simple nouns, the easiest things to memorize. Then came adjectives, adverbs, verb declensions and articles, which often pose problems for non-native speakers. In time they could shout along with Metallica or watch John Woo's “Face/Off” and understand every word.
They didn't know it, but their language skills were about to become valuable.
Abdullah's eyes fixed on two men.
Nothing about them signaled danger, yet he found himself staring all the same. He watched as they wound their way past the vehicles. They wore clean shirts and jeans, and their mustaches were well groomed.
Abdullah tracked them in his rearview mirror, then his side mirror. His hand gripped the Glock tightly. When they reached his van and continued past it, he got a better view. No sign of weapons. Nothing to suggest they were a threat.
His chest loosened as some of the tension ebbed. Nothing to worry about, he thought. It's all right.
Then the gunfire started.
In America, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed everything.
The nation watched, horrified, as the twin towers collapsed and smoke rose from the Pentagon. Word that another passenger jet had crashed in rural Pennsylvania merely added to the misery of that terrible day.
It seemed as if everything should stop, as if the world should observe a period of mourning. Businesses here shut down. The skies emptied of planes. Stranded passengers communed with others and reconsidered travel plans.
It was, perhaps, the worst day in U.S. history.
But in Iraq, the terror attacks barely registered. The two state-run television stations, Abdullah said, offered minimal coverage.
“The only way to get the real news, what was really going on, was to listen to the Voice of America, which broadcast in Arabic three hours a day,” he said.
Many didn't listen.
“They didn't care because they didn't have a chance to care” about what was happening in America, he said. “All their living went toward staying alive. … You had to go to work, earn some money to feed your family.”
The next year, Abdullah began his compulsory military service as a lab technician in a military hospital. He kept his ear to the radio, hearing the drum beats of war getting closer and closer. In 2003, when it seemed the invasion was imminent, Abdullah's father and brother, a colonel in the Iraqi air force, pulled strings to get him a week's leave.
When his leave ended, Abdullah didn't return to work. He was a deserter.
“I prayed the war would start because if it didn't, I would be executed,” he said. “The military puts you up against the wall, and they shoot you. They cover your eyes and shoot you.”
He'd timed his departure well. Within days of Abdullah going into hiding, the U.S.-led assault commenced.
“I stayed at home,” Abdullah said. “No one could go anywhere. You'd just hear the bombing. It was loud. … At nighttime, every 30 minutes you'd hear another bomb, a big one. Because there was the Balad air base, one of the biggest in the Middle East, they bombed that base repeatedly.”
Local reaction to the invasion is tricky to gauge. While those who benefited most from Hussein's rule saw their wealth and power stripped away, common folk cheered the Americans as conquering heroes. Abdullah said the Shi'a, in particular, were buoyed by the fall of the Ba'ath Party, but Sunni families like his also saw U.S. troops as saviors.
Nowhere did that seem more obvious than in Baghdad's Firdos Square, a public space near the Sheraton Ishtar and the Palestine Hotel, where many foreign journalists were staying. About a year before, a 39-foot statue of Saddam Hussein had been installed in the square for the tyrant's 65th birthday.
News Photo Galleriesview all
- 402At least 51 die in Oklahoma tornado, official says
- 378Oklahoma devastated by second round of twisters
- 347How to help tornado victims
- 247Read live updates from the May 20 Moore tornado
- 147Several kids pulled out of Oklahoma school rubble alive
- 93Twitter reaction from the sports world on the Moore/OKC tornadoes
- 52Social media used to send prayers and condolences to Oklahoma in wake of deadly tornadoes