Lost After Translation
The United States Marines entered Mosul from the north. I lived in the northern suburbs, so I saw the first American flag. When the Humvees stopped, I shook hands with the marines, and I told them: “You are mostly welcome here. Why don’t you come to my house and drink some cold water?” They offered me a job.
I was the first or second translator to work with the coalition forces in my city, the first or second Iraqi to set foot on the American base in Mosul. The Marines paid me $150 a month, which was better than the $2 I was making as a librarian. So I didn’t see weapons in their hands, I saw flowers, and I took them all as friends. I loved what I was doing because I thought it was a good thing for my country.
My family was nervous. They told me things would change. I needed the American money to get married, but my fiancée said, “We don’t need to get married now — just quit.” But I wanted to work with the military forever; I loved it.
The unit I worked with was training and equipping the Iraqi police, teaching them about human rights. I translated textbooks from an American police academy into Arabic. The Americans taught Iraqi officials to exercise their authority without taking bribes or humiliating employees.
Iraqis needed this education, and the unit I worked with was awesome. At one point, they did two or three patrols to clean up garbage from the streets. In our culture, cleaning garbage is a low-level job, but when we saw a captain and a general doing it, that gave us a very great feeling. I threw away my helmet, took a shovel and started working, cleaning up garbage.
But even as we cleaned the city of garbage, we forgot another kind of garbage that was accumulating. The way the Army reacted to the insurgency was not perfect. The Americans did many foolish things. When I saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib, I thought, we are teaching Iraqi policemen not to do that — do the Americans really do that?
I grew sad, and I didn’t know what to believe, because the people I worked with were great. I’d told the officers at our camp’s detention center, “You are treating those prisoners better than their own mothers.” It’s not normal in our culture for a policeman to come and feed a sick prisoner who is so dangerous that you have to keep him chained.
But I did it myself. I was very kind to Iraqi people, to my own people, and I think Americans taught me that — the American Army that I was working with, not the American Army that was in Abu Ghraib.
In the second year, when we were processing the release of prisoners from Abu Ghraib, I read out a list of names of prisoners who needed to collect their documents. One of them said to me, “You are all going to be killed.” I thought he was referring to the Americans, until he said, “No, I mean you.”
I didn’t translate this for the soldiers who were with me. I was thinking, “This person just got out of prison, and I don’t want to be the reason that he goes back to prison.”
About a month later, a message was fixed to my door, full of verses from the Koran and threats and curses. They gave me about one week to quit what I was doing.
A week later, a CD was fixed on my door, picturing one of my best friends, Nabi Abul-Ahad. It was a video of them beheading him, with the message that I would be next.
I was kicked out of the house. My family didn’t want me there any more. They said, “You’re going to get us all killed.” I had to leave my wife, who was pregnant. Baghdad was a real hell, so I hid in Najjaf.
After my wife gave birth to our son, her father told her, “If your husband doesn’t come to Mosul now, even if he’s going to get killed, then you are not his wife anymore.” This can happen in our society. I didn’t want to lose my wife or my son, so I went back to Mosul.
In Mosul, I had to stay hidden. I walked for about three hours in the dark, after curfew, when anybody can shoot at you, including the Americans, just to see my wife and my newborn son. Then I went back to my family’s house and hid for three months.
The American Army, or whoever’s in charge, has badly disappointed the translators. When I told them I was under threat, they said I could come and live on the base. I told them I had just been married, and my wife was pregnant, and my family needed me. They said I could live on the base and they would drop me by my house to visit my family at night.
Imagine if somebody saw me dropped by an American convoy near my house. The house would be burning the second I was inside. These were not logical solutions.
They could have helped my family move to Kurdistan, helped find me a job with the government there. Or, if I’d escaped to Jordan, they could tell the American Embassy there: “This is a translator who has been working for the United States Army. He’s just like an American soldier. Treat him well.”
But I’m not going to be ungrateful to the people who were fighting and dying for my country. I have friends in the American Army who died in front of my eyes.
I remember one of them, a dear friend to me who died stopping a car bomb. He was a hero. He was guarding the police academy in Mosul, which was full of new recruits being trained by the Americans.
My heart broke when I saw this: an American, coming from another continent, who died to protect Iraqi policemen. This was a good message, and I would never say that those people exploited me or exploited my thinking.
The system did. Not them.
Basim Mardan is a poet and translator.
Copyright © 2006 New York Times. All rights reserved.
These contributors are Iraqi writers and English translators, two of whom worked for the American military. Because of their work, they were hunted by death squads and only escaped Iraq with assistance from PEN and the Norwegian government. Larry Siems, director of the Freedom to Write Program at PEN American Center, interviewed them in Norway, where they have political asylum. These essays are adapted from his interviews.