11-2006: Waddah Ali: Fear of Freedom

WADDAH ALI: Fear of Freedom

Published by the New York Times, November 20, 2006

UNDER Saddam Hussein, if you were not a member of the Baath party, you wouldn’t get rations, you’d be forbidden to carry on studying, you wouldn’t be on the earth but in the sea.

I was invited to join the party in 1976, when I was doing my compulsory military service after earning my first degree at Mosul University. The colonel in control of my camp wanted to sit for an examination, and he asked me to join the party and translate the Oxford Companion to Military History into Arabic for him.

I’m very ambitious. I wanted to carry on with my studies. And so I joined the party, and when I finished my military service I was appointed to the university. They never appoint anyone unless you’re a party member, it doesn’t matter if you’re Plato or Aristotle.

In 1982, when Iraq and Iran were at war, they asked me if I wanted a promotion within the party. To get this, I would have to go with some other comrades and execute deserters from the war. I told them I was not an executioner.

They put me in prison. Through family contacts, I got out after one month. They expelled me from teaching and transferred me to clerical work.

I tried to escape Iraq for Turkey in 1995. But the Kurds in northern Iraq demanded money I didn’t have, and I decided to go back to Mosul, where I had a 300-meter plot of land given to me by Saddam Hussein.

Saddam Hussein gave everybody a plot of land. He was the most generous president, but also the most severe. He was a god, and gods are arbitrary.

In Mosul, men in a black Cadillac stopped me, blindfolded me and drove me to Baghdad, to Hakmiya Prison. After three months of solitary confinement, torture and electric shocks, I was accused of spying for Turkey. When I went in, my weight was 242 pounds. I came out only 121 pounds. I was divided in half by the torture.

After a year in prison, I came home. We were impoverished. My wife and children were living with her father in Karbala — they are Shiites — and my salary wasn’t even enough for transportation to visit them. After a long time, I was reappointed to a university near there. I had been there for three months when the Americans came.

Nobody in Karbala dared to work as a translator for the American soldiers, so I was pushed into the first ranks, translating between the military commanders and the governor every day on TV. I found myself riding a rocket of fame and prestige, but no money. Just $20 a week, and a stigma in the eyes of others.

I translated conferences and debates with the Karbala city council. I even translated for L. Paul Bremer, the American viceroy, when he came. Before he arrived, the colonel I worked for told me, “Waddah, don’t tell anybody he’s coming.” They trusted me, and I was worthy of their trust.

I tried to solve problems. Once, when students had a sit-in demonstration against the Americans, I told them: “Be quiet, be careful in your way of dealing with them. If you’re impolite, suppose they are impolite, too — you could be killed.”

Many times when I went to my father-in-law’s house I was shot at from afar. Among the Shiites there are many hard-liners who support Iran and hate America. They didn’t know that by marriage, I’m a Shiite like them. They said, this guy’s a Sunni, serving the Americans.

The Americans gave me a pistol to defend myself. It was a war spoil, an Iraqi intelligence-style pistol. But it created some troubles between me and the American in charge of intelligence. One day he told me, “Waddah, give me the card for the weapon,” the identity card allowing me to carry the weapon. I told him I didn’t have it. I didn’t trust him very much. He was young, proud and haughty. He frisked me, searching for the card, right in front of the president of the university, and he found the card in my pocket. He said, “You lied to me?”

I decided to quit working for the Americans. Not long after this, a child relative of mine was kidnapped on her way home from school. I sold my wife’s gold, and I sold the plot of land Saddam Hussein gave me, for the ransom. Every one of my friends was looking for her. Finally the kidnappers telephoned my brother, he gave them $50,000, and she was released. This is what the insurgents do to finance their terror.

HISTORY is an idea to you; to us it is our life. I’m a typical Iraqi. I love my country. I love my food, my way of life, I love the carpets, the mud of the Euphrates, Iraqi poetry, everything: this is my culture. If I feel proud, I recite my poets, and the rhythm comes back, and no other rhythm can supersede or remove it.

What made Saddam Hussein powerful? Information. Whenever a person checked into a hotel, a paper with his full name and a copy of his passport was given to the security quarters. Iraq was a castle; a bird could not go in without being checked. If you caused offense, you could be put in prison for good. If you were lucky you would be tried one day; if not, then we have a word in Arabic that means you rot, as food rots.

America did well to liberate Iraq. But Iraqis were used to tyranny and afraid of freedom. The Americans entered Iraq without a psychological program for dealing with this fact. Iraqis had been programmed according to another system of thought and feeling. America should have considered that.

Waddah Ali is a poet, translator and university lecturer.