17 September 2003
Like many men his age, the dark-skinned man with the thick mustache standing before me at the Baghdad Business Center was the victim of a large-scale organizational downsizing. What made his situation a bit different was that he had been laid off in the most public of fashions, with the whole world watching in real time. This man was an Iraqi soldier. A colonel in Saddam’s army. With his broad shoulders, thick chest, flat middle, and stoic gaze, he still looked the part of a military man. But the toughness he had undoubtedly once possessed in full was now diminished. His dark eyes, clearly capable of looking fearsome, now betrayed his fear. His thinning hair gave notice of middle age. His once-fine, but now old suit, his nervous pumping handshake, and his extreme apologetic courtesy reinforced to me the idea that this man was terrified as to what he would do next. “I don’t mean to trouble you sir. If you have time, perhaps you could help me. But only if you have time. I don’t mean to trouble you.”
That his wife was by his side, must have been humiliating for the both of them. A forceful woman, she had been beautiful once. That wasn’t my opinion. She told us that herself. Addressing the young Iraqi woman who works with me, she said in English so that I would understand, “I used to be young like you. I was pretty like you, too.” She paused to rummage through her pocket book. “Look at these,” she said as she shoved a thick wad of faded photographs towards us. “Look at how I used to be.” The images were of a woman 20 or 25 years younger than the one in front of me. A woman much thinner and much more confident than the one with me now. Mustachioed men (including her husband) in fine suits and military uniforms stood on either side of her. Big Ben appeared in some of the photographs. The Eiffel Tower in others. Some were taken at parties. Perhaps a wedding or a birthday. (Doubtful a bar mitzvah.) The music and laughter of these affairs had faded away long ago; the only one who could still hear them was this woman before me, a princess of the past regime. “I speak very good English,” she said anxiously. “My husband…he doesn’t work right now. “Do you have anything? We just need something for a short time, until my husband starts working again.”
Though it doesn’t pay all that much, translator positions are often available. So I loaded husband and wife into my humvee and drove them over to the CPA headquarters, a crescent-shaped building topped with four giant iron heads of Saddam Hussein.
“I love America!” the woman shouted to me above the noise of the engine and the wind. “I especially love the music.”
Goodbye to you my trusted friend
We’ve known each other since we’re nine or ten
In what was one of the most surreal experiences of my life, the man and woman sang Terry Jack’s “Seasons in the Sun” in its entirety as we drove through four shadows of their former master.
We had joy, we had fun, we had
Seasons in the sun
But the wine and the song
Like the seasons all have gone.