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September 2, 2009

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The Sense Of America

The NYT reconfigured their Baghdad Bureau blog to make At War, adding reports from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere as well as Iraq. This post by Atheer Kakan, an NYT translator and journalist in Iraq who (along with his family) was recently allowed to emigrate to the US as a political refugee, is downright astonishing: emotional and observant, sentimental and clear-eyed all at once:

My family was starving, so the first thing we did after we sat down was to bring them some food. I went to a fast-food shop and I ordered lots of American food. There was something with melting cheese. I think it was Mexican. And lots of French fries. The cashier girl was asking me if I wanted things, and I was approving everything she said.

Eventually I had lots of food to carry to my family, who were desperately waiting for me. I put down the food and we started eating, and I looked to my children, who seemed to be enjoying their time, and I released another breath as I felt that I was doing the right thing for all of us. It wasn’t the food that I really enjoyed; it was the sense of America that food was carrying.

The airport was so busy; it looked like there was some school trip happening because there were some mothers saying goodbye to their kids and giving them some instructions about what to do and what not to do.

The teenage girls looked impatient and were mocking everything the mothers were saying. I imagined my son Abdullah and my daughter Malak doing the same thing in the future, and my heart was shaking as I laughed at the idea of how I would look like at that time.

A fat boy was sitting behind us. He seemed curiously eager to understand our language, but when he failed he was looking at us cautiously. His looks didn’t insult me, not because he is a kid but because it is time for me to taste the meaning of peace. I lay back my head and relaxed my eyes.

I hope Atheer is writing a book.

[For more on the poorly-rewarded heroism of Iraqi translators, see George Packer’s “Betrayed” (which, also astonishingly, was written two and a half years ago).]

P.S.: Atheer Kakan was also the Times’ reporter in the room for the Bush/Maliki shoe-throwing press conference:

After the press conference we were locked inside the room for a while. It was very tense.

While we were inside the Prime Minister’s bodyguards tried to delete or confiscate film of the incident from the cameramen, but the journalists were all switching tapes quickly, like magicians, because no one wanted to lose such shots.

Later they let us all go, we do not know why. They just told us: “You can go, no one will try to delete your tapes.”

One of Mr. Maliki’s bodyguards called us ugly names because they thought that we were participating in a conspiracy, that we had all known about what was going to happen.

“We cooperated with you, and you betrayed us. You should have stopped him,” he said. Another guard told me me: “You are all Baathists.” He then raised his finger and said, “You are not allowed to say anything” in a very scary way.

Another tried to beat me after I objected because he was pushing an Iraqi journalist. I told him, “Why are you doing that? He is just a journalist.” He started calling us “sons of bitches” and other dirty names.

He also wrote a lovely essay about the historical imagination in Iraq. Kakan has a Sunni background, but briefly worked for the newspaper of a Shiite political party after the fall of Saddam:


We had many differences, discussions and arguments at that time. One of the most noticeable things about them, that I have never forgotten, was the influence of history on those who came back home after decades of marginalization, pursuit and execution.

Now that they were victorious and it was time for them to exercise the influence that they had been prevented from doing before, the one historical fact they kept in front of their eyes was that they would not let history repeat itself and let what happened after the revolution of 1920 against the British Empire happen again.

Then, their analysis was, that because the Shiites refused to deal, the British who negotiated with the Sunni minority and installed it in power, commencing nearly a century of Sunni dominance.

That historical ‘mistake’ of 1920 wasn’t just the obsession of Dawa. Many Shiites say that after this time they were marginalized and never treated fairly as a majority. Even now this historical fear still affects many of their decisions. They argue “we cannot neglect the political process, so that no one will ever turn around and take control again, after all the blood that we sacrificed.”

After a year I left and I carried with me all the memories about how the Shiites have suffered for centuries, and how history has influenced their positions and attitudes in the present time.

Iraqis adore history. You can hardly find an Iraqi who does not talk about the past in every conversation. Sometimes it prevents them from dealing with the present and planning for the future.

This what historians and sociologists say about Iraqis - they love history so much, to the level that they live in it.

Tim-sig.gif
Posted September 2, 2009 at 6:46 | Comments (4) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted, Worldsnark

Comments

I love the style and cadence of his writing. Reminds me -- not directly, just obliquely -- of Ha Jin, or Haruki Murakami (who has somebody else doing the translating, I know). Both elegant AND direct. Hard to pull off.

It would be wonderful -- really, one of the very tip-top wonderful things I can imagine -- to learn another language well enough to be able to write like this.

The infelicities somehow become felicitous, a matter of style and psychological accuracy. "Later they let us all go, we do not know why." -> Instead of a comma splice, it becomes an interrupted series. The sentence is not a self-contained unit of semantic/syntactic coherence, but of spatial and psychological unity.

You have this moment of time compressed:

"The cashier girl was asking me if I wanted things, and I was approving everything she said."

Juxtaposed with this moment of time - just a blink - encircled and mapped, spatially, emotionally:

"I put down the food and we started eating, and I looked to my children, who seemed to be enjoying their time, and I released another breath as I felt that I was doing the right thing for all of us."

It's elegant without artifice. It's all SEEN so well. You know it. You know every moment and inch of it.

my heart was shaking as I laughed at the idea of how I would look like at that time.

Oh, that must have been so terrifing--knowing that to give your children a safer, more peaceful life you will have to let them grow into being part of a different culture. So many of our parents just stumbled into that without really thinking it through---I think understanding it at the very point of no-return would make anyone's heart shake.

It's such a complex feeling though - being terrified and mocking your own terror - "my heart was shaking as I laughed at the idea of how I would look like at that time" - one of those "I know, and I know that I know, and I know that I know that I know" moments - but framed so elegantly, actually RESISTING the cliché while giving voice to it. Acuity.

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