Haunted by Murder, Iraqi ‘Fixer’ Struggles in U.S.
In October 2006, Iraqi journalist and translator Ahmed Ali spoke on his mobile phone with the Shia militiamen who had kidnapped his sister’s husband.
“Do not worry, you will be able to see him again,” they taunted. “You will be able to hold him in your arms—when you collect his body from the morgue.”
The kidnappers also told Ali, “We know you,” he recalled. “I was shocked.”
Three days later he learned that his brother-in-law was dead.
“I got the impression it was because of me.” he said, adding that “Sunnis couldn’t go to the morgue, which is controlled by Shia militias. We still haven’t found his body.”
We were speaking by telephone a few days after meeting at a dinner in New York City sponsored by PEN American Center, which monitors writers in jeopardy around the world.
We were speaking by telephone a fe”Ahmed Ali” is a nom de guerre. He, his wife and two children have been living in Atlanta since December. Ali’s fear of retribution—against them and especially his extended family in Iraq—is palpable, even in his voice over the phone.
“Al-Qaeda is a network,” he said. “They can strike you anywhere—in the U.S., in Europe, in Baghdad.”
For several years, first in Baghdad, where he was born in March 1973, and later in Damascus, Ali assisted British and American journalists covering the invasion of Iraq. An intimate knowledge of the Iraqi capital and a lifelong love of English had paid off in work as a guide and translator for writers trying to make sense of the war.
The seventh of 10 children, Ali was 18 before he found out he was Sunni.
“My family is not very religious,” he said. “I was raised in Baghdad among a mix of Sunni and Shia. The sectarianism came in with the U.S. invasion, to be honest with you. When I was 18, a security officer asked me what I was, and I didn’t know. I went to my best friend. In my family, we have a Shiite name.”
The family was comfortably middle-class, at least during his childhood.
“My father had a stainless steel factory, making furniture,” he said. “We lost everything after the Iran-Iraq war. All civilians were affected by the U.S. embargo. My family was among millions who suffered.
“After 1991, when the embargo started, the Iraq army entered Kuwait. My father was importing spare parts for cars. His business was through Kuwait. Everything was looted. It was really my father’s last chance. It was the last hit for the family. Everything went from bad to worse.”
Truth to Power
While hoping to study for an advanced degree in English, Ali began working as a tour guide. His three brothers were in the army. Soon he was also assisting journalists, earning a double byline with Oliver Poole, a war correspondent for London’s Daily Telegraph.
“Red Zone,” Poole’s just-published account of his five years in Baghdad, records in unflinching detail the horror of the war. It pays tribute to Ali’s determination to tell the truth about what was happening in Baghdad. The kidnapping of his brother-in-law was followed by the murder of another close friend, Poole writes, prompting Ali to finally leave the country.
Ali fled with his wife and children to Damascus. Granted a temporary work visa, he worked with a team from “60 Minutes” and met Larry Siems, a New York-based program director for PEN. Siems asked about his background and Ali showed him his work for the Daily Telegraph and the wrenching blogs detailing his new life as a refugee.
Adding To List
“He began to tell us his own story,” Siems said in an interview. “We added him to our list at that point—he was the first person we met there who was in danger because he had been writing for a Western newspaper.”
When the “60 Minutes” assignment was finished, Ali was introduced to George Packer, who was reporting a story for the New Yorker magazine about Iraqis who had worked for, and then been abandoned by, U.S. officials.
“I hired him to be my fixer in Damascus and I got to know him that way,” said Packer. Ali introduced him to other Iraqi refugees, arranging meetings and interpreting, while often opening up his own home in exile to other journalists.
“He’s a very decent, serious, rather long-suffering fellow,” said Packer, who understands Ali’s fear. “Anyone with a history of connection to foreigners is endangered, and no one is going to protect them. They’re marked people.”
Relocating to U.S.
When Packer returned to the U.S., Ali was told that his work visa had expired. Faced with no prospects for employment, his savings from his work for the Daily Telegraph drained, he accepted Siems’s offer of help relocating to the U.S.
“These are guys the world owes a huge debt to,” Siems said. “No Western reporter knew the most basic information about Iraq—infrastructure, ethnic violence, the basic storylines of this war. But everybody knew Ahmed. He was the go-to guy in Damascus.”
Siems said that U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy had been instrumental in pushing through the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, which has increased the number of Iraqis coming to the U.S., The legislation also required processing of Iraqi refugees to begin in Iraq. But the loosening up of restrictions has come as the U.S. economy is facing its own crisis.
“They are arriving in the worst economic climate,” Siems said. “But there’s a very limited safety net.”
Ali spent his first months in the U.S. training Iraq-bound servicemen in the art of diplomacy.
“I had a temporary contract with a company working with the Army, teaching them about cultural differences such as not touching a female,” Ali said, “to help not make the Iraqis enemies.”
With his housing allowance about to run out, Ali is under growing pressure to find work that can put his skills as writer and translator to use. He has had encouragement from the journalists who put their careers—and their lives—in his hands. But the prospects are slow to develop. He has a compelling story to tell, however, and undoubtedly will find the right place to tell it.
“When I speak, I should speak frankly,” he said. “Yet I cannot have my own name. I have to remember which name to use! It’s very painful to remember what I’ve been through. Sometimes I have to stop. My wife brings me water to calm me.”
Such anguish and fear are familiar to Packer, who turned his story about Iraqis who put their faith in America only to be abandoned, into the powerful play, “Betrayed,” which is still running in Greenwich Village.
“As a journalist having gone to Iraq a lot, I made friendships with people who were invaluable to me,” he told me. “To start to hear stories about people who were being killed, their families threatened, was intolerable to me. We should all feel guilty. The Iraqis seemed to take our promises more seriously than we did. They believed us.”