Tag it:
Delicious
Furl it!
Spurl
NewsVine
Reddit
Digg

In November 2006, Qussay Hussein Al-Attabi returned to his Baghdad office and found a note on his desk. “We don’t want to see your mother lose her child,” it read. “Death to America. Death to Israel. Death to spies.” Al-Attabi booked a plane to Jordan the next day, leaving his homeland for good.

Al-Attabi’s yearlong odyssey from Baghdad to Amman, Jordan, and then to the United States landed him eventually at Brown, where he is a non-degree graduate student teaching Arabic to undergraduates. He hopes to get into the University’s comparative literature PhD program so he can study modern Iraqi poetry, but his academic status remains uncertain.

None of this is what he expected when he signed up in May 2003 to be an interpreter for the U.S. military in Iraq, working for five dollars a day. As the twenty-six-year-old Al-Attabi puts it, “In just a few years, I’ve had enough experiences to last me a lifetime.”

Al-Attabi was hired a mere two months after the invasion. A Shiite with a master’s in English literature, he believed the occupation would be “something good for the people.” Indeed, he says, most Iraqis at the time shared this viewpoint. He remembers going on patrol with U.S. soldiers and having “people hand us roses and flowers.”

 

21.Qussay2.32976.jpg
Mary Beth Meehan

Within a year this had changed. Al-Attabi says the Americans suffered from an “obvious lack of understanding of Iraqi society.” There was also, he says, a “complete lack of proper planning” for governing the country after Hussein was defeated. He believes that holding local elections so soon after the invasion was a huge mistake. Iraqis, largely ignorant of what democracy entailed and wholly new to the experience of voting, put extremists into office into municipalities across the country. The Americans did not realize that "democracy needs to be given in doses," Al-Attabi says.

Another problem, he says, was that the Iraqis themselves were ambivalent and confused about what they wanted for their country. Al-Attabi says that, when asked, his people will say they desire to be part of a single, unified country. But as a practical matter, they prefer to live and work strictly among their own religious brethren, making unification all but impossible.

Al-Attabi believes that his country's descent into civil war and violence stems from the failure of Iraqis to forsake sectarianism for the good of the country. "It's our fault," he says. "Things might have been aggravated by American diplomacy, but mainly it is our fault." 

On December 16, 2003, Al-Attabi and a platoon of U.S. troops were doing crowd control at what seemed to them like a peaceful protest. A few days earlier, Saddam Hussein had been arrested in his bunker, and about 100 Iraqis were out demonstrating in his support.

“All of a sudden everything turned bad,” Al-Attabi says. As if on cue, the crowd dispersed and out of nowhere machine guns and shoulder-launched anti-tank rocket launchers began firing on Al-Attabi and the troops. Al-Attabi was a huge mistake. Iraqis, largely ignorant of what democracy entailed and wholly new to the experience of voting, put extremists into office in municipalities across the country. The Americans did not realize that “democracy needs to be given in doses,” Al-Attabi says.

Another problem, he says, was that the Iraqis themselves were ambivalent and confused about what they wanted for their country. Al-Attabi says that, when asked, his people will say they desire to be part of a single, unified country. But as a practical matter, they prefer to live and work strictly among their own religious brethren, making unification all but impossible.

Al-Attabi believes that his country’s descent into civil war and violence stems from the failure of Iraqis to forsake sectarianism for the good of the country. “It’s our fault,” he says. “Things might have been aggravated by American diplomacy, but mainly it is our fault.”

On December 16, 2003, Al-Attabi and a platoon of U.S. troops were doing crowd control at what seemed to themwas sitting in a Humvee when this happened. “I heard something big hit the tank,” he says. “Then I realized they were bullets and grenades.” For several hours, Al-Attabi sat there as the battle raged outside.

The Americans prevailed. With two U.S. soldiers, Al-Attabi scoured the battlefield for injured survivors. When they heard an injured Iraqi call out, they went over to him. As they did so, a grenade exploded nearby. “I was just a few feet away,” Al-Attabi says. “I could see the soldiers falling.” One of his comrades was covered in blood; the other had a badly damaged leg. “Miraculously, I wasn’t hurt,” Al- Attabi says. “I have no idea how that happened.” A military policeman led him back to the Humvee.

To go out on patrol, Al-Attabi wore large sunglasses and wrapped his face in a cloth, but it was not difficult to identify him by his large body size. Locals called him the “Fat Interpreter,” which by 2005 was no longer a term of affection. The Mahdi Army, a militia under the control of Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, was now threatening to kill anyone who worked as an interpreter for the Americans. The note on Al-Attabi’s office door confirmed for him that Sadr’s group was now after him.

Having saved some money while working for the United States, Al-Attabi now used it to purchase a $600 ticket to Amman. Jordan turns away 90 percent of Iraqi travelers, he says, requiring visitors from Iraq to produce a round-trip ticket. When his plane was delayed for several hours, Al-Attabi worried that the would be arriving in Jordan after dark, and that guards, worn out from the day’s work, wouldn’t want to bother going through all the paperwork it takes to admit an Iraqi. But as it turned out, the delay meant his plane arrived in Amman at the same time as the one carrying the Iraqi Olympic team. It was a fortunate coincidence, Al-Attabi says: “They just let me go, thinking I was part of the team.”

He spent nine months in Amman waiting for the U.S. embassy to approve his visa request. His service to the U.S. military helped his case, but he had another connection that would prove even more useful. In 2005 Al-Attabi had been part of an Iraqi student delegation visiting Roger Williams University in Providence. The school’s president, Roy J. Nirschel, had kept in contact with Al- Attabi, and now began calling politicians and government officials on his behalf.

In August, Al-Attabi received a student visa to study in Rhode Island. “I called my mother over the phone,” he recalls, “and told her, and she was crying, ‘Thank God! At last you will be saved.'"

”Al-Attabi plans never to return to Iraq, but his stay in the United States is hardly secure. He has not been accepted to Brown’s comparative literature department as a degree candidate; he won’t learn his fate until admissions decisions are made in the spring. If he is rejected and his visa is not renewed, he will not be allowed to stay here legally. “People at Brown are helpful,” he says, “but I appreciate that they would rather go with what is best for Brown than what is best for me.”

Yet Al-Attabi remains unfazed—he is happy just to be alive and in Rhode Island. “This is what I always wanted,” he says.





Be the first to comment on this article

Name and Class Year:
Email:
Comment:

Code:* Code