How Do You Say Clueless?

By Muean Aljabiry
Sunday, March 19, 2006

T he noise of the C-130 was deafening. One week after the liberation of Iraq, I was bound for Baghdad. The plane's gray and red colors and the crew's khaki uniforms were in sharp contrast to the attires of the 20 or so passengers: State Department types in suits and ties, women in Eddie Bauer outfits, a few men in blue jeans. At the tail end of the plane, a young woman in uniform, her legs dangling from the edge, was "manning" a gun.

Bottled water and foam ear plugs were distributed to us. The tall cowboy from Oklahoma sitting next to me volunteered to show me how to knead the foam, in order to insert the plugs in my ears. I thanked him and introduced myself. Noticing my accent or the peculiarity of my name, he asked in a loud voice: "Where from?"

I mumbled a few words about being from Northern Virginia and added that I was born in Najaf.

He looked at me as if recalling someone he had known before. "Oh, that's India, right? Never been there, but someday I will." He shook my hand firmly and I learned that Bill was an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel being deployed to Baghdad to work with a unit dealing with civil affairs.

On the bus from the airport in Baghdad, I felt a mixture of exhilaration and nervousness. How, I wondered, would I reach the family with whom I had lost contact since the start of this war? They were unaware of my coming and I had no idea as to their safety or well-being.

The last time I had been on that road was back in October 1981, during the Iraq-Iran war, when, with a broken spirit, I had left Baghdad for the last time. After I had made "Rasheed Street," a film about the history of Baghdad's famous main street, Saddam Hussein's henchmen made me an offer that they said I should not refuse: to make a big budget film with an international cast about the life of the "great leader." Once I rejected their offer, they banned my film and made my life, and that of my family, very miserable. After spending a few days in jail and having all the money in my bank account confiscated, I left, promising never to return until the monster was gone. Now, the absolute thrill of being back in a free Iraq, liberated from that hideous regime, was so overwhelming that I shoved all my anxieties aside and contemplated my task ahead.

I was assigned by the State Department to interpret for the Baghdad Conference (to establish an interim government) and later to provide language support to both Barbara Bodine and retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the two highest officials in postwar Iraq. I didn't know how the experiment would turn out. But as I arrived in Baghdad, I really believed the United States had an efficient, well-studied plan to put Iraq together after toppling the Saddam regime.

What I witnessed in the year or so I spent helping U.S. officials on the ground in Iraq, and what I have seen more recently, has made me doubtful about our competence for nation building, an exercise the United States initially claimed to have no interest in carrying out. Perhaps for that reason, America didn't seem to have studied Iraq's long history of repulsing occupiers. When the British attempted to build a nation in Mesopotamia at the end of World War I, it was confronted with a great revolt that continues to be a source of pride to Iraqis. I sometimes worry that, like the British enterprise, the U.S. effort to build a pluralistic, democratic society in Iraq will be remembered primarily for the insurgency it has spawned.

When we arrived from the airport, we were ushered into the Baghdad Convention Center, given flimsy mattresses and blankets and told to find a place to sleep. I tried to sleep but the acrid smell of burnt gasoline or rubber tires made it difficult to breathe. With no electricity and in the pitch darkness, everything was stirring in my mind like a film in fast forward. I imagined the voice of Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore from "Apocalypse Now" echoing across the halls of the Convention Center: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning . . . The smell, you know that gasoline smell . . . smelled like . . . victory . . . Someday this war's gonna end." Eventually I collapsed and fell into a deep, deep sleep.

The conference was reminiscent of the commotion in "Lawrence of Arabia," when the British officer T.E. Lawrence gathered the citizens of Damascus back in 1918. There were clerics in white and black turbans, men in traditional tribal headdress, and many who wore Western suits. As Garner addressed the gathering, the audience was shouting complaints about looting and the lack of security, electricity and other services. There was no semblance of order in the hall. Responding to his unruly audience's demands, Garner started assigning security functions to some of the clerics and the tribal sheiks. "Rebels, especially successful rebels, were of necessity bad subjects and worse governors," Lawrence wrote amid the chaos of liberated Damascus. It seemed that the same could be said of these Iraqi generals, clerics and chieftains.

Not long after, my new friend Lt. Col. Bill came to ask me to teach him a few words in Arabic. He said he was assigned to deal with the former Ministry of Culture and that he needed help to interact with its department heads. He inquired if Iraqis' "language" is different from that of Saudis. He wanted to know whether Iraqis say marhaba , instead of greeting each other with salaam alaikum as they do in Saudi Arabia. I managed to teach him how to say shukran, for thank you. And I promised him that learning one phrase per day would make him as good as a native speaker by the time we left Iraq. I could easily tell he did not get the cynicism in my promise.

The motorcade of the new Boss arrived at the main gate of the palace in mid-May. Many smartly dressed men and some women got out of their vehicles. I was trying to get a glimpse of this new presidential envoy, who was sent to make things right in Iraq. The gentleman in the blue suit, striped red tie and combat boots was L. Paul Bremer. He looked sharp even at this broiling temperature. I wondered how long it would be before he started dressing casually like Garner. To me, he looked like a new head of state and I knew that we'd be working closely together. I was assigned to be his interpreter.

It was the season of dreadful heat and dust storms in Baghdad. Bremer kept the massive number of Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) staff working almost nonstop. In addition to interpreting for him in his meetings with Iraqi political leaders, I kept a hectic schedule translating his documents and correspondence.

Nothing was working right in Baghdad. Electricity, water and other services were in short supply. My family, whom I had finally managed to contact, informed me of the terrible situation. They came to fetch me and on the way from the palace to their home, I asked my nephew to drive me through Rasheed Street. It was a ghost town, nothing like the lively street I had known and loved. My mind flashed to a deserted place in Arizona where they used to shoot westerns. I wondered how long it would take to transform this shabbiness into a city center like that of Beirut. U.S. resourcefulness will make this happen very soon, I told my nephew as he cursed the old regime.

At home with my family, I deeply felt the expanse that separated us for so many years. I, in the full comfort of my Virginia surroundings, and my entire family, in Saddam's abyss, were worlds apart. They complained about how bad things were. Food and services were scarce, but they all chipped in to load the dining room table with everything they knew I liked. They were joyful that the nightmare was over, but like most Iraqis lectured me that "you Americans" should do this and that in order to get Iraq moving in the right direction. I assured them of our efforts to institute democracy and revealed to them that we were forming a Governing Council. It would, I promised, lead the country into a true democracy.

My niece, Akila al-Hashimi, a French-educated senior career diplomat, declared that such a dream would unquestionably require some time. "In the conduct of our daily lives," she said, "we Iraqis must liberate ourselves of autocratic ideals, in order to make such a dream a reality." With immense enthusiasm, she pressed our family to do its share in the efforts to achieve this goal. Later, after I introduced her to Bodine and Bremer, she became a prominent member of the council.

Lt. Col. Bill came over to my office to enlist my help in finding him an interpreter. He complained that the officials of the former Ministry of Culture could not speak English. Pointing at a book on my desk, he asked, "So what is this book you are reading?"

"The bible," I started to say.

"But I thought you are Shia!" he cut me off.

I told him that the book, "The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq," was Hanna Batatu's book on Iraq and that it was a must-read for anyone dealing with modern Iraq's political history.

Bill pulled from his back pocket a green paperback, published in the mid-'80s by Iraq's Ministry of Tourism and with a straight face told me, "All I need to know about Iraq is in here."

I yawned.

By then, the process of selecting members to the Governing Council was in full swing. Assorted Iraqi figures were delivered to the palace to be interviewed and evaluated for their political, social and economic views, as well as their attitudes toward the coalition. Often, I asked myself or my colleagues: Who nominated this person? Where did they find this woman? We had people who must have borrowed Col. Bill's book scouting cities and villages in Iraq for candidates to the "GC," as we came to call it. Those who did the recruiting had Arabic vocabularies approaching that of my friend Col. Bill, although their résumés attested to their fluency in Arabic.

From a helicopter, Baghdad looked dusty and pale ocher. In all directions, patches of palm groves dotted the landscape below. On one trip that summer, I found myself surveying the satellite dishes springing up from the roofs and wondered how TV and the Internet would affect future generations.

Iraq, I told the woman sitting across from me, finally had an open window from which to see the world. She was Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, the commander of the Abu Ghraib prison, and she was taking a large group of coalition and U.N. officials along with several journalists to show off the newly refurbished and redecorated facility. "The sparkling cells," she told her audience that day, "are up to the highest international standards." Outside, and under the scorching sun, hundreds of inmates were gathered in an open-air camp. "Looters," she said, when a journalist asked why the inmates were sequestered there and not in the new cells. I wondered if they would furnish the prison with satellite televisions.

Iraqis are shrewd people. Those we dealt with fell into two very different groups: Those who had opposed Saddam and had just returned from exile and those who had remained in Iraq and had learned to survive by simply saying yes to anything the master said or did. As soon as those from the latter group felt a measure of safety, they unloosed an avalanche of criticism on their master. This tactic was so ingrained that they continued to use it in their dealings with us. But some U.S. officials exhibited a naivete or ignorance that was too glaring for the smart Iraqis, and communication suffered. I suspect that it continues to suffer.

One day I was invited to attend a luncheon for some Iraqi intellectuals in the convention center. The group comprised some university professors, writers, artists and clerics. They were recruited to support our efforts to convene the first session of the Governing Council. They spoke of their aspirations for the new Iraq and wondered about the makeup of the council.

"Iraq is a mosaic, very much like America," someone said. "We want to be the 51st state, and you have to help us," another pleaded. But the black-turbaned cleric from Karbala, who sat silent most of the meeting, finally spoke. "Your president had said that you will not be here one day beyond what is needed. We are very grateful to all your sacrifices to liberate us from Saddam's tyranny. You have to know that Iraq is the cradle of civilization and we gave the world a lot more than just oil. If oil is what you want, then take it and leave us to restore the structure of our society and our culture. You must start thinking of when to leave, for I swear by Allah, if you stay one day longer than what your president promised, we will fight you, men, women and children."

Everyone in the room was wordless. Lt. Col. Bill looked at me for help to break the silence.

Twenty-two men and three women formed the newly established Governing Council. They sat around a large oval table covered in green. The way they were seated was telling. The ambitious Shiite politicians Ahmed Chalabi, Ayad Allawi and Ibrahim al-Jafari sat at the head of the table. Rival Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani sat across from each other. Two men in tribal headgear sat at the far end of the table, while two women sat next to each other. I noticed my niece Akila sitting separately. Neither representatives of Iraq's political elites from the pre-Saddam era nor Iraqi military officers were present. Those who had not been annihilated by Saddam lived to be ignored by the Western powers. British diplomat John Sawers, the U.N. special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello and Bremer wished them success in leading the new Iraq to the shores of democracy and prosperity.

But an undertow was tugging in the other direction.

Much happened in the months that followed. Everyone in the palace worked heroically to bring a measure of stability and structure to the new Iraq. But reconstruction and budget issues took a toll and the problems of elusive electricity and long gasoline lines continued. The number of car bombs and assassinations escalated. Mortar shells started to come nearer and nearer to the Green Zone. We had insurgency in Fallujah. Al-Qaeda, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Moqtada al-Sadr and his militia were thorny problems to reckon with and various parties maintained their own militias.

In September 2003, my niece Akila, while on her way to work, was shot in the abdomen by terrorists who attacked her two-car convoy. Bremer recently wrote that he received the news while dining in the United States with his wife and the Bushes. Mrs. Bremer suggested they pray for Akila, and they did. I went to the hospital with the CPA's surgeon general and we moved her to the Green Zone, but she later died of her wounds.

Members of the Governing Council continued to haggle endlessly over every issue. Every word and every sentence in the Transitional Administrative Law were surgically dissected into the late hours of the night. That it eventually passed to serve as the foundation for the country's first democratic constitution was one of Bremer's major achievements. I felt that finally -- despite Col. Bill, the death of Akila, the ruthless terrorists and feckless politicians -- we had done something right.

On June 28, 2004, I was in the studio dubbing a voiceover of the farewell speech delivered by Bremer; he was already on the plane leaving Iraq. A few days later, I too took the road to Baghdad's airport for my return to the United States. But this time, I promised my family and my friends that I would return. Maybe the sequel to that year would end more happily.

Fade to white.

Muean Aljabiry is an Iraqi-born filmmaker and political consultant.

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