Mister America

07 October 2004

Hassan Ali loves America more than any Iraqi I know, and I have met literally thousands of them.  Hassan is about fifty years old.  He is married and has one daughter.  About thirty years ago, Hassan was allowed to travel to the United States for four months to study aircraft maintenance at a technical college in Oklahoma.  Hassan had not been out of Iraq before, and, as it would turn out, he would not leave Iraq again until 2004, when his employer, Iraqi Airways, sent him to Jordan for some training.

Oklahoma is a great place.  I’ve traveled all over our country and I’ve long maintained that the prettiest girls come from Oklahoma (with Alabama running a close second).  The people of the Sooner State are friendly and the rolling hills are nice to look at.  That said, it ain’t exactly a tourist destination.  Hassan didn’t go to New York or Washington or Los Angeles or some other cosmopolitan spot.  He went to Tulsa for four months, and he came back a changed man.  He loved every single thing he saw in America.  He loved the honesty and freedom, the modernity and the spirit of can-do optimism that radiated from the people he met there.  Hassan was determined to move permanently to America.  Unfortunately, the increasingly restrictive policies of Saddam Hussein would prevent him from doing so.

So Hassan got a job as a technician at Iraqi Airways.  He married a good woman and the two of them had a daughter.  He would tell his only child, today a pretty teenager, all about America.  “The land of the free!” he would say with a raised finger, “And the home of the brave!”  Hassan’s English was perfect and he took great pride in quoting things like our national anthem or popular American songs or movies. 

As a quick aside, Hassan has fair skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair.  He looks like the title character in the James Bond film, Goldfinger.  Since I’ve been in the Middle East, I’ve met a handful of folks whose looks defy their true ethnicity.  I think a good idea for a spy novel would be to have a cell of terrorists made up of these guys.  They would all speak perfect English and would slip into European or American metropolises unnoticed where they would then wreak havoc until a good guy super agent brought them down.  If Tom Clancy or John LeCarre is reading this, feel free to run with the idea.

Now back to our story.

When the United States invaded Iraq in March of 2003, it was like a dream come true for Hassan.  All his life he had wanted to go back to the Americans; now they were coming to him.  As the coalition bombs shook and rattled his home on the western outskirts of Baghdad, he held his daughter and told her that everything was going to be okay, that the Americans knew what they were doing, that soon Saddam—that murderous bastard—would be gone and that she would taste a thing called freedom for the very first time.

When the Americans finally did arrive in person in the Iraqi capital, Hassan was one of the first to approach them to volunteer as a translator.  Both he and his wife soon got jobs in the Green Zone, helping the liberators communicate with their new Arab friends.  Hassan’s wife worked for me.  That is how I got to know the family.

“You are all God’s gift to us!” Hassan would say to me of my fellow American soldiers.  He should know something about the Almighty.  Hassan, who is Shi’ia, is a Saadaat Muslim, a person who can trace their ancestry directly back to the Prophet.  Even when the Americans made a mistake, such as raiding or destroying the wrong house, he would lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of his countrymen.  Surely some Iraqi informant had given the valiant red, white, and blue soldiers bad intelligence for some nefarious reason.   “He probably had a grudge against his neighbor,” Hassan would say.  This, sadly, was often true. 

Hassan’s daughter spends a lot of time around the Americans.  She feels safe around them.  They tell jokes and kick a soccer ball around with her.  Hassan’s daughter loves soccer.  “Do you know Mia Hamm?” she once asked me.  She is pen pals--or, rather, email pals--with the daughters of some soldiers back in U.S.  One American friend gave her a necklace whose charm is a gold New York Yankees logo.  I don’t think she’s ever taken it off, though I’m not sure she really knows exactly how baseball is played.  But the Yankees, perhaps more than anything else, represent America, and she loves America more than anything else.  “Captain Jim,” Hassan said to me several times, “Someday I want to get my daughter and my wife out of here.  We will go to America and start our lives over there.  My daughter will have a future there.  That is why I always drill her on her English.  It’s coming along well, don’t you think?”  And, yes, in the 17 months I’ve known the family, her English has improved dramatically.

Last week I went to Baghdad and stopped by my old office to visit Hassan’s wife.  I found her sitting alone in the shadows, her eyes puffy and red from crying.  “Hassan’s sister was killed yesterday by an American rocket,” she told me.  “It hit the wrong house.  She and her husband were both killed.  They have four children.  The children have no one to take care of them now except us.”

Hassan will do the right thing, and his dream of a new life will be put on hold awhile longer.