"What happens when a call from Iraq
upends a reporter's life in New York
By SARMAD ALI
February 17, 2007; Page A1
About 5 o'clock on a mid-December morning, I was awakened by a call from my brother in Iraq. "Dad is missing," he said. He was upset and some of his anger spilled out at me: "You should be here," he shouted. "You don't seem to care."
My father had left home in Baghdad that morning to go to the auto-repair shop across town where he works. Fifteen minutes after he left, car bombs exploded on his route to work and he hasn't been seen since.
His disappearance set off a desperate search by my family through the netherworld of war-torn Baghdad. It also put me in the agonizing position of trying to help my family with the violent dislocations of civil war -- over the phone, from thousands of miles away. I'm the oldest son and have been studying and working in New York for more than two years. Since my father vanished, my three grown siblings and my mother have looked to me as the head of the family.
Every time I hear about a bomb going off, I brace myself for the worst possible news. Last February, my entire family went missing for two weeks, without a word. When my cellphone rings and an Iraqi number shows up on the display, I say a silent prayer before answering.
My life has always been marked by Saddam Hussein's wars. Born to Sunni parents -- my mother a homemaker, my father a mechanic -- I grew up in a brick house in a poor Baghdad neighborhood where Sunnis and Shias lived together. War with neighboring Iran dominated my early childhood. Many nights, Iranian jet fighters roared overhead. Most afternoons, we would watch "Sowar min Al-Marakah" ("Pictures from the Battle"), a propaganda show featuring battlefield footage and the mangled corpses of Iranian soldiers. My parents once gave me medication to fight a recurring nightmare of being squashed under an Iranian tank.
I was in primary school in 1991 when Operation Desert Storm kicked off after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. Once, a U.S. missile hit a spice factory near our home. We smelled the spices, thought it was a chemical attack and covered our mouths with wet towels. During most of my teens, we lived under U.N. sanctions on government-issued rations of staple foods.
There were happy times, too. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of the celebrations surrounding the Muslim religious holiday of Eid. During the festival, my father used to take me, my sisters and my brother to the park for amusement rides, to eat kebab and to walk at night by the Tigris River.
I always wanted to be a journalist. But under Saddam, studying journalism was pointless, since all newspapers were run and rigorously monitored by the government. In middle school, I started teaching myself English, practicing with translation texts and old American newsmagazines left in our basement by a relative. I used to spend hours memorizing vocabulary lists and looking up new words in an outdated dictionary. I dreamed of going to school in a Western country, of traveling the world and writing about it.
By 2003, at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we were already used to war. My family evacuated to the countryside, with the exception of my father, who said that if he had to die, he would rather die at home.
We returned several weeks later, after Saddam was toppled. My father welcomed us back, but he appeared broken. A secular Sunni and fervent patriot, he had been against the American invasion and never thought it would happen. Now, he had become pessimistic about the future of his country: The looting in the aftermath of the invasion disgusted him. "They stole everything from the government buildings around us," he said, as we walked in the door. "TVs, computers, and even water pipes."
But life continued. My father went back to work; my younger sister and brother went to high school, and my older sister, who had graduated with a degree in English, helped my mother around the house. I found a job as a journalist for a new local English-language paper. I reported stories on bombings, reconstruction projects and other news from all over Iraq.
The violence increased. I had been on the job less than one year when the editor, an Iraqi-American, left the country, afraid that his life was in danger. Along with three other journalists, I kept the publication alive on the Web, posting news items from an Internet cafe in downtown Baghdad.
Before he left, the editor got me in touch with Columbia University in the U.S., which shortly afterward offered me a scholarship to study journalism. My parents said I should accept. I did, and four months later I took off. The morning I left, my brother insisted on carrying my big suitcase to the cab. My mother splashed a pitcher of water behind me, an Iraqi tradition wishing a traveler a safe return home.
With $300 in my pocket, I took a 15-hour cab ride to Jordan, and a plane to New York from there.
By August 2004, I settled in New York, enjoying the life of a newcomer in his 20s. I started to take classes and learned new things, from buckling my seat belt in a plane to working out in a gym; from using a washing machine to eating sushi and tandoori dishes. Later, I landed an internship, and then a reporting job with this newspaper.
But as I was getting used to my comfortable new life, I was also regularly pulled back into Iraq, where things were getting worse. A few months after my arrival in New York, I was chatting with a friend in Baghdad on my cellphone when he told me that an acquaintance had died in a roadside bomb attack. I became afraid of getting calls from Iraq, sometimes not answering them. I considered changing my phone number so no one could call me with bad news -- but I could still call people back home when I felt like it. Other times, I became obsessed with fear and would call to check on my family and friends, burning through a 400-minute calling card in a weekend.
When Al-Askari's famous gold-domed Shiite mosque was bombed last February, violence erupted throughout Iraq. Suddenly I couldn't get in touch with anyone back home. I didn't know whether my family members were dead or alive, whether they were taken by gunmen for ethnic reasons or if it was just that their phone line was down. I stopped eating, stopped going to work. I tried calling at three different times every day, to no avail. They surfaced two weeks later, safe and sound, after having fled to the countryside to stay with distant relatives, in an effort to escape violence or retaliation against Sunnis.
During an instant-message conversation with a friend in Iraq, the war dealt me its first massive blow: Haider Al-Maliki, a friend from university in Baghdad who had come to visit me in New York the year before, was found dead, his body riddled with 13 bullets. He was stopped by unknown gunmen while in a cab in the southern city of Amarah and shot on the spot. Other friends began going to their jobs at the government and in the Green Zone in disguise, trying to avoid Haider's fate. One friend poses as a student, while another takes a roundabout route to work for fear of being followed.
Meanwhile, my sister, seeing that ethnic violence was increasing near our neighborhood, asked me if the family should buy a gun. "Ask the neighbors what they are doing," I told her, not knowing what to do. When we talked a week later, my family had opted against it.
My father kept going to work every day, despite the rising violence. It was one way of staying sane. Then, in December, he went missing, and I got my brother's frantic call.
I told my brother to calm down and said that I was here to help -- that I left the country to help the family. "You are there, with air conditioning, entertaining yourself, while we are here in hell," he retorted.
I tried to ignore the comments -- I had heard them from him before -- and told him to focus on the matter at hand. He did. After dad left, he said, there was a huge bombing near the central station where he was supposed to transfer to another bus. Dad never showed up at work and never came back home.
I told him to go to the area of the bombing -- a busy marketplace in central Baghdad -- to see where the wounded were taken. I also called three of my old friends in Baghdad to ask them to accompany him. My brother had already asked some of our cousins to visit police stations to see if my father had been taken into custody.
A few hours later, we talked again. By that time, my brother had visited a local hospital, where most victims were taken. He said that my father wasn't on the hospital's official list of the dead, so he walked around to see if he could recognize him among the wounded. He described a scene of chaos and carnage: Blood was everywhere, people were weeping in the halls, hospital staff were running back and forth -- but my father was nowhere to be found.
Two days after the bombing, I called my friend Ala and asked him to go to the hospital morgue to see if my father might be among the unidentified dead, victims who weren't carrying IDs or were burned beyond recognition. Ala went and checked three charred bodies, but concluded they were not my father. One was too fat, he said. Another had hair, while my father is bald. And the last one was too young and short to be my father.
My cousin went to a nearby police station, a mini-fortress surrounded by barbed wire and sandbags, to see if my father was mistakenly being held. He told the lieutenant that he was looking for his uncle and gave him the name. He wasn't there.
A week passed and my father still hadn't been found. On the phone, my mother sounded faint and sick but kept saying she was all right. She told me to take care of myself and that my father would come back. She insisted that my father was fine. Her proof: He was not at the morgue.
My older sister couldn't keep up appearances. She stopped eating, stopped taking showers and descended into a depression, my younger sister said. She hadn't been well for more than a year, ever since several cars exploded near her on a market square. Back then, the sight of a child's charred body had sent her into shock. For days, all she could do was hug her knees and murmur over and over: "Poor girl, they killed her, animals." She recalled running through streets awash with blood and sewage, packed with civilians pushing flat wooden carts on which they piled the wounded and the dead. Her condition improved only after she got antidepressants. But after my father went missing, she spiraled back into a severe depression. Medical assistance proved elusive this time, with violence deterring nurses from visiting.
On my way to the gym one recent day, I got a call from my brother with more bad news. A mortar shell hit near my house and damaged the already-fragile bedroom walls. "Do you know that your mother and sisters are sleeping in the hallway shivering in this cold winter?" my brother said. I told him I would send money. Exasperated, he said that even with money they wouldn't be able to fix the room and that they would sleep in my old bedroom from now on.
I feel responsible for my family, but at the same time helpless. I am not a U.S. citizen, or a permanent resident. My guest status here prevents me from being able to bring my family to join me. I ask them to stay strong and take care and stay indoors. I try to give them hope, although I know it could be a false hope. Sometimes I stop calling them for a few weeks to avoid listening to all this.
I've considered going back many times, mostly because I miss my family and I haven't seen them for more than two years. But that is risky -- both because of the growing violence and because it's not certain that I could leave the U.S. and return. My mother says I should stay here. "Don't even think of coming back," she told me on the phone a few weeks ago. "People are leaving, not coming."
These days, my mother and sisters don't go outside the house at all. None of them have traveled before. They don't have passports. And they don't have the money it takes to buy tickets, taxi rides, hotel rooms. They say there are no guarantees of finding a way to make a living in neighboring countries like Jordan.
I seek consolation in small things that remind me of home. I keep three envelopes with my mother's recipes scribbled on them -- lentil soup, tomato sauce with beans and Iraqi-style biryani -- next to my bed. When bad things happen back home, I cook them. My laptop is stocked with songs about Baghdad. I search the Internet for pictures of Iraq before the U.S. invasion. Pictures of the Tigris River. Of bustling Baghdad streets. Of the past that is no longer.
Occasionally, I talk to the few Iraqis I know in the U.S. -- a friend in Michigan, another in Massachusetts. A small Iraqi-flag key chain hangs on a nail sticking out of my wall.
Bombings in the news send me scurrying to my computer for information about the exact time and location of the explosions. I lay curled under my green comforter, going over in my mind where my family members and friends might have been at the time.
New friends keep me company. While civil war raged in Iraq, I attended parties celebrating Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's. At Christmas break, I went to the home of a friend's aunt in Connecticut; I shopped for gifts -- books, a T-shirt, a scarf, a tie -- and we ate a big dinner.
I don't tell my friends in America too much about what is happening with my family in Iraq. I try to avoid talking about the war because it's so far removed from the world of restaurants, coffee shops, and polite conversations. I worry people won't understand or don't want to be bothered. During a recent dinner in New York's Chinatown, a friend asked, "How's your family?" When I told her about my father, she was shocked. She offered condolences and said I shouldn't hesitate to ask her for help. I felt grateful, but a little awkward because I knew that neither she nor anyone else who means well can really change things for my family.
Sometimes, my family becomes hopeless and says my father must be dead -- otherwise he would have returned by now. Other days, they are more optimistic, saying that he may have been taken by kidnappers and he will be released.
The last time we talked, my younger sister pleaded with me to help her find a way out of Baghdad. She said she would cook and clean for me, if I could just figure out a way to get her out of there. It made my heart sink.
Trying to check on the fate of my father, I called my brother on his cellphone -- the only phone in my family's possession -- late last month. That day, bombs had gone off on a Shiite market where he likes to shop for DVDs and CDs. Press reports said there were more than 80 dead. He did not pick up his phone. Not the next day either. I recently reached a friend in Iraq, who said he had seen my brother. But I'm still waiting for him to call back.
Write to Sarmad Ali at email@example.com"