Ahmed Ali: Baghdad, Damascus, Atlanta
I was eighteen years old, in the final stage of high school. This meant I had to join the army, unless I got a letter authorized by the Minister of Education, which would allow me to put it off until graduation. But it wasn’t easy to get things done under Saddam. You had to bribe people—and the man I bribed was leading me on. I waited and waited but my letter never reached the officials. I got mad. I found the man I bribed and let him have it. I had a lot of energy then. One punch and he was on the ground.
They took me to the school offices. Under the law, I could have been put in jail for six months. They asked me, “Where are you from?”
“Baghdad,” I said.
“Don’t do this with me,” he said. “Tell me what is your tribe.” I told him.
“Are you Sunni?” he asked.
“What does that mean?”
“Are you Sunni or Shiite?”
I didn’t know the difference. He said I was making fun of him. But I swore on Allah that I didn’t know. Now he was surprised—so surprised, he let me go. “But don’t even think about doing anything like this again.”
The Sunni and Shiite thing stuck in my mind. I went to my closest friend.
“Ali,” I said, “are you Sunni or Shiite?”
“What does this mean?”
So we went to his mom, and we asked her. She said, “Who told you about this?” I told her the story. “Don’t get bothered,” she said. “It means nothing.” But she also told me that I was Sunni and Ali was Shiite.
Years later, in October of 2006, I decided to leave Iraq. The night before, I talked with Ali. He begged for me to stay. Now I am in the United States. He is still there.
After high school, in the late ’90s, I applied for a job with the Tourism Board. I took some required courses and then began guiding tours across Iraq. Mostly I guided religious tourists, who come to Iraq to visit the shrines. We would stay in hotels in Karbala or Najaf or Samarra. I would take them to the shrines and describe the architecture and the history. Years later I got work as an interpreter for the CBC. Then the US invaded.
Five days after the invasion, a friend got me a job with a British newspaper, The Telegraph. I worked as an interpreter and a fixer. But as things got worse in Baghdad, I had to do the reporting as well. After Saddam was arrested, The Telegraph wanted a story about how people were reacting in Dujail, a village that Saddam almost destroyed in 1982, after an assassination attempt took place there. He killed 148 people, and put more than a thousand others in dungeons in the south of Iraq.
I had friends in Dujail, so I went there and stayed with them. I brought a fake ID that said I worked for Radio Dijla, a famous station in Iraq. I was stopped at a checkpoint and asked what brought me to Dujail. “I’m a journalist for Radio Dijla,” I said. Most of the staff for that station are Shiite, and they only broadcast propaganda for the new government. So they let me go.
When I got back to the offices of The Telegraph, I gave my notes to Oliver Poole, a reporter there. “Let’s write it down,” he said.
“Who?” I asked him.
“You have to write it.”
“Come on, don’t kid me,” I said.
“No, no,” he said. “We have to work together on this story.”
I had become a journalist.
At first I wrote stories using my real name, but that became too dangerous. I began using the pen name Ahmed Ali. Ahmed I chose because it is a common name in the Muslim world. Ali I chose because of Imam Ali. He was the husband of the prophet’s daughter. He was willing to sacrifice himself even as a young man. And he was an intellectual. Mohamed said, “I am the city of knowledge and Ali is the door.” For Shiites, he is the most respected imam.
In the summer of 2006 I was in the Green Zone covering Saddam’s trial when I got a phone call saying my brother-in-law had disappeared. He went to his job, and left his two kids in the house, and he didn’t come back. I tried to call him on his cell phone, but it was switched off. Later, in the offices of The Telegraph, his captors called me using his cell phone. They had abducted my brother-in-law after stopping him at a checkpoint.
I tried to introduce myself. “We know,” they said. “You are Ahmed Ali.”
I asked if they wanted money. “No.”
I asked if I could see my brother-in-law. “Don’t worry,” they said. “You will see him at the morgue.” But we never found the body.
My wife and I decided to flee with our daughter and infant son to Syria. At first I was able to continue working for news organizations: CBS, NPR, The New Yorker. But after only two months I was tracked down by Syrian intelligence. They didn’t want me to get close to the foreigners—because I am an Iraqi, I wouldn’t be reporting the activities of these foreigners to the Syrian government. And they don’t want anybody to discover what happens in Syria, which is like Iraq was under Saddam.
So by the end of 2006 we had to leave Syria as well. We would go to the US. But our case needed to be approved, and this took time. We were in Damascus for one year and four months. I hate waiting. I remember speaking to an Iraqi woman who had decided to go back to Iraq. She had run out of money, and she had to return. “I’m heading to Hell,” she said. “I have no other choice.”
We flew for three and a half hours to get to Budapest from Damascus. We waited seven hours at the Budapest International Airport before flying for nine and a half hours to New York. Then we flew to Atlanta.
It took two weeks to get the necessary documents; then I was allowed to take a driving exam. I did not know my way around, so someone recommended a GPS navigator. It took nearly an hour to buy the thing, and I wanted to test it out.
It was sunset. I suggested to my wife that we have dinner at McDonald’s, and I asked the navigator to take us to the nearest one.
“Wrong route! Wrong route!” the device told us as I tried to leave the shopping compound. I realized that a blue siren was flashing behind me and that I should pull over.
“Do you know that you ran those lights?” the police officer asked.
“I think so,” I said.
“Why would you do that with kids in the car?”
“The damn device,” I said. “It keeps telling me the wrong way.”
“You should watch the streetlights first,” he said, “and then your device.” I told him that because I had been in Atlanta less than three weeks I did not know the routes.
“Where are you from?” he asked. “Iraq,” I said. The police officer was surprised. He asked for my driver’s license, took it back to his car. “Wait here,” he told me.
“What will you do?” my wife asked. “Nothing,” I said. “Just wait.”
The officer came back, asked me how I was able to get my driver’s license and the car so quickly. “No language barrier,” I said. I could see his smile. He said I should be careful, especially when my kids were with me.
“What now, sir?”
“You’re free to go, but I won’t let you go if I catch you again.”
He was about to leave. “Please,” I asked, “could you show us the way to McDonald’s?”
One morning, my six-year-old daughter came to me as I was brushing my teeth. “Dad,” she said, “I see fire coming from the other side of the street!” I saw firefighters running to the apartments of two other Iraqi families, who reached Atlanta one day before we did. Later the press came to cover the newest disaster for the poor, unlucky Iraqis. The Iraqis could not speak English, and the Americans could not speak Arabic, so I worked as a translator once again. My name and number were in the local newspaper, and I had a busy day answering phone calls from local Americans who wanted to help.
I have been trying to write about these experiences, but they are painful to remember. It takes a long time to write a single paragraph. I have to stop typing and get some rest and sometimes a cup of water or tea offered by the person who has been sacrificing her life for me, my wife.
This past April I was invited by George Packer to see a play he had written about interpreters in Iraq. Afterwards we would answer questions from the audience. I got to know George while I was in Syria. As the show started, my tears were coming down secretly. I wanted to leave the theater but I felt an obligation as an Iraqi to tell people about the life Iraqis have nowadays. The show made me feel guilty for my attempt to forget about my country, people, family and friends. It’s not easy to leave your history. You’re stuck to your memories. I think of my cousins, my brothers and sisters, still in Iraq. I speak to them on the phone every chance I get. But it is not enough.