Every morning, Bassam Sebti wakes up and goes looking for pain. Sitting down with English Breakfast tea in a mug from St. Joseph's University, he takes hold of the mouse he's plugged in to his laptop and clicks through his Web sites: The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Associated Press and Reuters, as well as Arab-language papers Azzaman and Al-Hayat and Iraqi paper Al-Sabah. At each site, he drags his eyes like flickering cursors across the screen, scanning the headlines for key words or word pairings: "Baghdad" and "bombing," "Iraq" and "kidnapping," "insurgent," "militia," "sectarian violence." He often finds them.This routine, this flogging of himself with information, is a sort of daily rite of passage Bassam endures. He does this despite the fact that everyone around him knows he's already absorbed more than his share of the world's pain; despite the fact that, when he was actually at the pain's source, he simply turned numb.
Evan M. Lopez
Bassam remembers walking down a Baghdad street, beside the concrete barriers around Al-Hamra Hotel, which housed many foreign journalists. A truck bomb had just gone off, and two nearby apartment buildings had been destroyed collapsed, with people in them. Body parts lined the street like litter, but Bassam bore witness to the scene indifferently. "Look, there's a leg," he remembers thinking idly. "There's a toe."
He also remembers sitting in the passenger seat of a car at night, the driver flooring the accelerator, insurgents on his left, police on his right. Bassam had seen the flying red sparks, and heard the familiar crackle of their weapons. Now, he closed his eyes. Which of these men with guns, eyes wide with fear and adrenaline, would figure this passing car for the enemy? Bassam tried to decide what the best place to get hit would be: the leg? The shoulder? Once the fight was behind him, he checked himself for wounds. He was incredulous to find he had none. He'd assumed he'd been hit, though he hadn't felt anything. Why should he feel anything? Who felt anything anymore?
Now that he can feel again, however, Bassam takes the bad news with his morning tea, immersing himself in stories of terrorized neighborhoods, innocent bystanders and mothers who've lost their sons. Then, on his way to work, he smokes a cigarette, to put a barrier between his Iraqi morning and his American day.
It can be easy to forget, with the Iraq war hugely unpopular and the president who launched it an unfunny national joke, that at the time of the invasion, in March 2003, this foreign policy strategy enjoyed the support of nearly three-quarters of the country. Yes, the public was deceived, the punditry adolescent, the media obsequious. But that's the point: This cross is not Bush's alone to bear. This is America's war.
We met on a pleasant spring Friday at a Così in Center City. The first thing I noticed about Bassam, after taking in his appearance average build, round face, preppy dress, sophisticated glasses was that he's an extremely nice guy: warm, smiling and polite almost to the point of inconvenience (it took us a few awkward moments to choose a table, because I wanted him, the interviewee, to be comfortable, and his preference was to defer to me). Initially, I chalked this up to some cultural difference, a formal affability unfamiliar in Philadelphia. But as time went by, I realized, no. He's just really friendly.
The second thing I noticed was that Bassam speaks English, if not flawlessly, then very fluently, only truly struggling with colloquialisms and plurals. Now 27, he's spent the past two years pursuing his master's in St. Joe's Writing Studies program learning to be a writer in his second language.
"My parents were both teachers of English," he says, by way of explanation.
The St. Joe's program is an amalgam of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Bassam has an interest in all of these forms, but his thesis is creative nonfiction a memoir of his life, from his birth during the Iran-Iraq war up until he began working as a translator for Jill Carroll, the American journalist who was later kidnapped (her translator at the time of the kidnapping, Allan Enwiyah, was killed).
Now that he's graduated, he plans to write the rest of his story, and publish the work as a book. He'd initially hesitated to write any memoir at all he worried about endangering people by revealing their identities. But he decided to do it, partly because he realized he could change names, and partly because the demand for such a story was evident. Since he'd come to St. Joe's, his fellow students had peppered him with questions, eager to hear his tales. Americans, perhaps, were looking for a human face for our Iraq war.
I asked Bassam whether he minded repeatedly telling his life story at such a young age, and answering the same questions over and over. (For instance: What did you eat for dinner on the eve of the invasion? Everyone seems to want to know, and he doesn't remember.)
"Honestly, it gets tiring," he said. "But I think it's important to tell these stories. I'm doing my part of educating people about the war."
Indeed, this seems to have become his raison d'etre, his purpose in this country: to explain to us what we have wrought. And so, over the course of a few meetings, he proceeded to tell me this story his story, but also his country's, and to a greater degree than we may want to admit, ours.
You wouldn't have known there was a war on when Bassam was a boy in Baghdad. Iraq had invaded Iran just two months after his birth, in September 1980. But Bassam didn't feel it. His parents were middle-class secular Shiites, teachers both his mother in an elementary school, his father in a high school. They were apolitical, not Baathists, and with the war being fought elsewhere, Bassam was unaware he'd been born into circumstances that were anything but perfectly acceptable.In school he studied the glories of Saddam Hussein, whom he understood to be a brave leader fighting the evil Persians. By nature a nerd, he got good grades, and founded a school newspaper. (He had an aunt, a strong woman whom he respected, who was a journalist. She didn't cover the Hussein regime, but Bassam didn't understand this at the time.) As he recalls it, the paper covered "school news, festivals, workshops, sports, etc."
One day, he was summoned to the dean's office. The dean, a man in his 50s, was a reputed tough guy, the kind of administrator who kids like Bassam steered clear of. Bassam was scared; he didn't know what he'd done, but worried it was something that would let his parents down. He sat down in front of the dean, who picked up a copy of Bassam's newspaper and threw it in his face.
"What is this bullshit?" he shouted.
The education ministry had gotten its hands on the paper, and deemed it a piece of unsanctioned media. The dean, after some shouting, told Bassam that because he had a good record, no action would be taken in this case but that Bassam should "consider the newspaper canceled from today."
"Don't think about this anymore," he said.
It was one of the first cracks in Bassam's understanding that he lived in a pleasant world. The other came by way of missiles.
Two years after ceasing active military combat with Iran, Iraq invaded Kuwait. As Bassam understood it, Saddam Hussein was "liberating" the Kuwaiti people. But some country called the United States, which Bassam understood as an obscure enemy, didn't like it. Bassam, his parents and his sister were forced to flee Baghdad, to their grandparents' home. Bassam saw the bombs, though. The ground shook; glass broke.
"The sky literally turned red," he recalls.
Things would not be the same. After deciding not to take Baghdad, the U.S. and the United Nations imposed stringent sanctions on Iraq, decimating the economy, and Bassam's self-perception as a normal boy in a plentiful land disintegrated. His parents' salaries decreased in value to the equivalent of $1.50 per month. Food was rationed sharply, to about 1,000 calories per person per day about 40 percent of daily requirements. Whereas previously, the Sebti family had consumed meat and always had enough flour and sugar, they now struggled to put food on the table. They pawned furniture and his mother's jewelry. Essentially, they sold off their middle-class status, and, with many of their neighbors, became poor.
Other things went awry. An uncle of Bassam's was caught telling a joke about Saddam; he was arrested, tortured and, shortly after being released, died of a heart attack. (Afterward, Bassam's mother only commented, "He should have not said this.") When Bassam was about 15, his cousin was caught outside without an ID cause for "interrogation" by the police, who were on the lookout for army deserters. The cousin, Bassam was told, was forced to sit naked on a broken bottle, and then hung from a spinning ceiling fan.
Though things improved materially in 1997 with the inception of the Oil-for-Food Programme, Bassam was beginning to understand his country, and its haunting leader, differently. It was a strange process: He was post-pubescent, becoming more capable of abstract, independent thought. And he was thinking that Saddam Hussein might be a tyrant. But no one else around him, not his peers and not his parents, expressed such a sentiment aloud. He had to wonder: Am I crazy? Or is everyone else?
"I thought I was the only one who felt this way," he says.
When he was 18 or 19, and in a bad mood one day, he snapped and criticized Saddam aloud inside his parents' home.
His father reprimanded him.
"Don't you ever say that again inside the house," he said.
Bassam asked why. Who would turn him in, his sister?
His father explained that you couldn't get used to saying such things in private, because you could grow accustomed to it, and one day say them in public.He acquiesced. Such was life under Saddam: generally bad, and, if you were unlucky or incautious, horrible. But for Bassam, just bad.
They knew it was coming. Though the official Iraqi news sources said only that American President George Bush was threatening to invade Iraq, Bassam's family had a radio on which they could pick up foreign signals at night. They were home listening to the BBC on March 17, and heard Bush deliver his speech demanding that Saddam surrender in 48 hours. They knew he would not.
While he did so, he took time to ponder. On the one hand, he thought, it would be great to get rid of Saddam. On the other, he didn't want Iraq occupied by a foreign country, and what's more, he had lived through a war in 1991. He wasn't eager to do it again. He'd heard what the U.S. had done in World War II, using a nuclear weapon when it couldn't subdue Japan through other methods. He worried that America had reached a similar point of frustration with Iraq.
His decision, ultimately, was that he didn't have to make a decision. History was happening to him, and his opinion was not required. He could not change its course.
"I just let it happen without knowing what I want," he says.
On the 19th of March, Bassam, his mother, sister and some cousins moved all the furniture in their home into Bassam's bedroom, and duct-taped their windows, making big Xs across them, so they wouldn't, as Bassam says, "shatter as knives." Then, that afternoon, Bassam and a friend from high school named Munis took a ride around Baghdad. Bassam's mother worried that the army would find them, and make them fight the only reason Bassam wasn't a soldier was that he was a student, an explanation that would perhaps be inadequate on the literal eve of war. But Bassam was a romantic at 22, in love with his city. He wanted to tell it goodbye.
Munis felt the same. He was a Sunni, but this didn't matter at the time, at least in Bassam's life. Together they rode, taking in the strange sights: What Bassam saw was a city that was technically open for business the government had not acknowledged the impending trouble, school hadn't even been canceled but in reality was a ghost town.
"Baghdad was a metropolitan city ... a center of education, culture, trade," Bassam says. Tonight, though, stores were closed, restaurants deserted; by 7 p.m., the only light was that of street lamps.
He returned home and shared a distracted, unmemorable dinner with his mother, sister, aunt and cousins. Then the family sat down in front of the TV. Saddam's channels weren't showing anything about the impending war, so they watched a movie, an American film starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, which Bassam had seen before. He began to doze off. His mother went with him down to the basement, where the family would sleep that night. She looked pale; they spoke for a while.
"What will we do if Americans start fighting Iraqis in our neighborhood?" she asked.
Bassam didn't have an answer, but he collected his family members' documents birth certificates, licenses and put them in a bag next to his pillow. In case they had to run, he didn't want them to be nameless, starting from scratch.
He woke to his mother shouting."It's the siren! It's the siren!"
It was 5:30 a.m., and the air raid sirens were screaming. In the distance, explosions began, and Baghdad shook. Bassam's mother, a secular woman, took out a Quran.
"We thought that was going to be our end, we might die, so why not pray?" Bassam says.
Every two or three minutes, there was a loud explosion. Out a window, they saw war planes whiz by, and, a few moments later, heard a BOOM like lightning preceding thunder.
After about an hour, the "all-clear" siren sounded, and Bassam, not knowing what else to do with himself, went back to sleep. When he woke a couple of hours later, it took a moment to gather his thoughts he was in the basement, and there was a war on. He went upstairs. March 20 was a lovely day in Baghdad, sunny and balmy, and the family was eating breakfast in the kitchen with two big windows open into his mother's garden. Bassam took some tea and sat down silently. Everyone was silent, until his aunt said, "Well, that's it, we're going to be like them."
By "them," they all knew, she meant the Palestinians. To Bassam, this was the most pessimistic prediction anyone could make.
The next few weeks were war, chaos. A few days after the invasion, the family heard over a battery-powered radio that American troops were approaching their neighborhood. Bassam wondered what they would look like, and pictured Israeli troops, of whom he had seen pictures. He did see American troops that day, out-of-place figures gripping their black guns. But the family fled to his aunt's house near the airport, squeezing 10 into an early-'90s model Oldsmobile. Along the way, they passed young Iraqi soldiers, most of whom, they knew, were conscripts."Those poor guys," remarked Bassam's aunt. "All of them are going to die."
Bassam would have become a soldier in two more months, after graduating. Instead, at his aunt's house, he watched a live broadcast of Saddam's statue being toppled. He was again torn: happy to see it go, but disturbed by the sight of the Americans throwing a red, white and blue flag over the statue's face. He understood that the Americans had done the work, overthrown the tyrant. But he would have preferred some Iraqi symbol. It was a clear sign that his country was occupied.
With control of Baghdad determined, the family climbed back in the car to return home to the Tunis Quarter of Adhamiya. On the way, Bassam saw things that weren't normal an 8-year-old kid pulling a carpet down the street, another carrying a chair.
"Oh my God," he thought with embarrassment. "These people are looting!"
He also, after driving over a bridge across the Tigris, saw an old man with a beard, an AK-47 and a Quran. Before the war, he remembered, Saddam had opened the borders to "mujahideen," religious soldiers who wanted to fight the Americans. As the car drove on, he saw more mujahideen, and then, across a traffic circle, some American troops. There was a pop, and suddenly the family found itself in the middle of a firefight Bassam saw bullets, little black dots like flies, zipping through the air. Then he looked back to the old man. He was crumpled on the ground, finished.
They made it home, though, and the house was fine, with the exception of some spoiled food. Soon, the Americans sealed down the city, and things began to look up. They got back electricity and water, at least for a few hours a day. Bassam met some American troops, and found them to be disarmingly young, and as friendly as people could be while pointing guns at you (he would maintain this positive impression until the Abu Ghraib story broke in 2004). The Occupational Authority raised the pension salary of retirees, and Bassam's father, who had been quite uncomfortable watching the war from afar in the first place, returned from Libya. In June, Bassam was able to go back to school to finish his bachelor's degree. Shortly thereafter, he began his brief, wildly successful and deeply traumatic career as a journalist.
It's not easy for an economy to function under the duress that Iraq was suffering in 2003. And indeed, for many, the war meant hard times. But there was one demographic that, as foreign soldiers, mercenaries and journalists poured into the country, saw its market value go up: people who spoke English well.Many Iraqis studied English as a second language, but Bassam, raised as he was by English teachers, had started early, then attended a respected high school, and majored in English and Literature in college. Just a few days after he graduated in August, a friend who graduated ahead of him recommended him as a translator to Jill Carroll.
Carroll was just a bit older than Bassam, and the first American he'd ever worked with closely. They got along well. Carroll, Bassam thought, had "[fallen] in love" with Iraq, and he was moved by her passion. She was working on a story about Iraqi women, post-invasion, and he helped her to set up the interviews and translate. They worked on the story for eight days, and when they were done, she passed his name along to a friend at The Washington Post.
The Post did not call immediately. In fact, it took a second recommendation, from the same friend who'd given Bassam's name to Carroll, for the paper to reach out. Nevertheless, Bassam was excited when it did. He'd received offers to work as a translator for American troops, but wasn't sure if the job would be safe some Iraqis might consider it a betrayal. Working for the press, though, would be perfect: He could help to build his new country while doing what he wanted to do, and even hold a job with some prestige the Post, he understood, was a big deal. When the paper finally offered him a gig, he wanted to tell the world. The only reason he didn't was that the friend who recommended him had asked him to keep it quiet he didn't want to offend other, closer friends. His manners would save Bassam's life.
There were long hours at the Post. Sometimes Bassam would work from 9 to 9, traveling with reporters to other cities, translating their questions for man-on-the-street interviews. But it was thrilling, and, what's more, he got to watch carefully as these professionals practiced their craft. He came to think that, while some of the American TV he saw seemed simplistic, dishonest even, newspapers like his were doing a good job covering the "human side" of the Iraqi story. And he was helping. Even amid his fury over Abu Ghraib, he was proud to see his employer, an American media outlet, report on an American scandal. It was, truly, a foreign concept.
But life in Baghdad took a turn. (Bassam thought the U.S. made two major mistakes: disbanding the Iraqi armed forces, which gave foreign militants a large, violent, jobless and angry recruiting pool, and establishing a sectarian Governing Council, which emphasized cultural divides and gave everyone else something to fight about.) First, it got particularly bad for foreigners in early 2004, the American businessman Nick Berg was kidnapped and beheaded, and any sense of security that foreigners felt in the city began to dissipate. In a perverted way, this was good for Bassam's career. One day, for instance, there was a demonstration of former Iraqi policemen, now unemployed, in the square where Saddam's statue had stood. American troops were doing crowd control, which angered some of the demonstrators; things got testy, and it would have been a risky place for an American reporter to venture. But Bassam, there with a colleague from the Post, didn't mind walking in. He took a pad, walked in to the crowd, and asked the questions he thought a reporter would.
"That's exactly what I would have done," his colleague said when Bassam returned with notes.
Over the next few months, Bassam went from translator to reporter.
"I wanted to give the translators/fixers who wanted to a chance to do some reporting on their own," says his bureau chief at the time, Ellen Knickmeyer. Bassam was the first to make this transition. He went to places where American reporters would have been unwise to tread, and covered bombings, firefights, politics and the release of abused and found-innocent prisoners from Abu Ghraib. The Post liked what he was doing, too: Knickmeyer says that Bassam's work, and that of some of his Iraqi colleagues, "evoked an air of pathos and loss that American reporters' work generally didn't convey as openly and rawly, because they had experienced that loss themselves."
It would have been exhilarating, but for the fact that he was covering his country falling apart.
At first, it had grown too dangerous in Iraq for foreigners. But as sectarian tensions escalated, the violence became so random and frequent that no one was safe. Things exploded every day, bodies were found on the side of the street, people were killed just for being in the wrong neighborhood.
It became more dangerous for Bassam in particular, as well. Working for foreign media was no longer an "acceptable" profession; Bassam had to take two cabs to ensure that no one tracked him to work, and use all his acumen and knowledge of Iraqi society (such as when to avoid certain places) to stay alive. He was glad that, at the request of the friend who recommended him to the Post, he had told his neighbors that he worked in an Internet café.
It was during this trying time that Bassam realized two things about himself. First, he could do this job: He could walk up to a distraught relative of a bomb victim, interview a man burned head to toe, walk down a bloody street, and maintain his composure. Not everyone could he had seen reporters who couldn't handle it, and had to leave the country. Second, the reason he could do this was that he had begun to go numb. He was seeing so much carnage, so much heartbreak, that each individual horror ceased to seem remarkable. The violence was unrelenting, and if it didn't hit you directly, it claimed your sanity instead. His little niece would wake up and cry for no apparent reason, although, of course, there was a reason.
"Every single Iraqi in Iraq is traumatized," Bassam says.
His indifference became such that he began to believe he would die as he was young, and going through the motions of survival. And he might well have. But a Post reporter he had befriended named Jackie Spinner approached him with another idea: Why didn't he go to the U.S. to study? Bassam thought she was kidding the U.S. has admitted just a few thousand Iraqi refugees, fewer than Sweden. But Spinner said she had a twin sister, Jenny, who taught in a writing program at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia (together, the sisters were working on a book, Tell Them I Didn't Cry, about the war). She thought they could work something out.
Once he realized she was serious, it was hard for Bassam to get his head around Spinner's idea. Go to the U.S.? Leave his family behind, not just thousands of miles away, but in a war zone? And yet, there was never really any question that he should do it: He was being given a chance to leave an extremely violent, dysfunctional, disintegrating place, and quite possibly being offered decades of his life. He proceeded to jump through the necessary hoops of immigration and academia, including staying out after curfew to take the GREs. And then he took leave from his city of walls and ruins to live in the place that was, in large part, responsible for making it that way.
Michael T. Regan
(CLICK IMAGE FOR LARGER VERSION)
There's culture shock, and then there's the culture shock of moving to a country that started a war in your home.
Bassam had his share of the traditional kind. The Spinners helped him with many of the logistics of establishing a life in the U.S., such as finding an apartment, setting up a bank account (no simple task for an Iraqi man who wanted to have money wired from the Middle East), lining up a campus job, and even some smaller things Jenny Spinner recalls walking with Bassam through a dollar store, throwing essentials such as toothpaste into his shopping basket. But there was still quite a bit about the U.S. that took getting used to. The food, for instance, which he didn't like (he ate a lot of Wendy's), and the humor, which he did. He thoroughly enjoyed a "Don't Even Think of Parking Here" sign, and the TV shows Friends and Will & Grace.
He was taken aback by the racial divide in Philadelphia. Where he lived on City Line Avenue, all the black people lived on one side, all the whites on the other. He was also confused by the perception that the city is a "dangerous" place.
But these were the little things that threw him, the curiosities of living in a new place. The true difficulty came elsewhere.
He missed his friends and family with abandon. It wasn't just that they were far away, but that they were living in such desperate circumstances. His niece was growing up without him, yes, but also doing so dysfunctionally, without peace, without playgrounds. His father told him he felt like he was in a prison. And his mother looked increasingly harried when he spoke to her via webcam. Inevitably, he would put these circumstances out of his mind from time to time, get sucked in to his new life in a peaceful land. But when he was reminded of them, guilt would hit him like a high-voltage current. Upon seeing his first snow, for instance, he called his mother excitedly, only to find her preoccupied with a nearby bombing. It made him despondent.
"Sometimes I feel like I am betraying my country," he says. "Betraying every woman who lost a son by the troops. Betraying the innocent prisoners in Abu Ghraib who are released after being abused."
This, perhaps, is how he came to develop his morning routine of absorbing Iraq's bad news. It was partly to make sure the unthinkable hadn't happened to his family. But it was partly to stay in touch, psychologically, with the horrible goings-on in his homeland. Bassam had learned, by getting used to death and destruction, that "people can get used to anything." Now he worried about getting used to ignoring death and destruction. Which, he could see, was also possible.
The distance Bassam felt from the war in Iraq was elongated by the experience of trying to follow events as an American. Trying to watch on television, as many Americans do, was maddening to him: He rarely heard anything, for instance, about 4 million Iraqi refugees, and felt that coverage was disproportionately geared toward the American military. During the days of "the surge is working," he was so overwhelmed by positive talk that he called his parents and asked them, "Is it really good?"
"Are you crazy?" they said. "Baghdad is segregated. ... There are no more people to fight. But if you're a Shiite and you go to a Sunni neighborhood, you'll get killed."
The worst, he felt, was Fox News. For many American liberals, Fox isn't even worth getting angry about. But for Bassam, discovering it for the first time, the channel was a horror.
"All Fox talks about is how victory is achieved," he says. "Have you ever seen Fox News interviewing an Iraqi refugee? I think it's the American Al-Jazeera. It's very similar."
His opinions on the media were mitigated, somewhat, by the occasional emergence of something contrary to the cheerleading for instance, he loved and was impressed by the existence of the Comedy Central show Lil' Bush, which he first watched on YouTube, and which he thought rendered the president and his co-travelers accurately. But that was part of the problem: When he wasn't being driven crazy by the media, the politicians got to him. He heard the president making some version of his argument that we're "fighting the terrorists there so we don't have to fight them here," and it was deeply, deeply offensive to him. Why should America fight its enemies near his parents' home? Those enemies weren't there to begin with; America drew them there. And innocent people had their lives destroyed as a result. Why should America get to do that? Were American lives more valuable?American lives. American life. The television he could put off, the politicians, tune out. But it was a struggle for him to go about his daily life amongst people whose country had started a war, but who were decidedly not experiencing it.
Bassam did not dislike most Americans. A social person, he made numerous good friends in school, and found joy in his teachers, classes and peers. Those Americans who offended him directly like the cabbie who, upon hearing Bassam was from Baghdad, said, "You mean our enemy? You guys are killing our soldiers" they were there, but not nearly a majority. Even Bassam's political arguments were respectful.
"He was extremely diplomatic," says his friend Sarah Whelehon.
Still, people occasionally made him crazy. Living in metro/academic America, he didn't meet many soldiers' families, and looking at everyone else he wondered: Where is the war?
He had a classmate who, one day, appeared very upset, and extrovert that he is, he went over to ask her what was wrong.
"It's my cat," she said.
"What's wrong with your cat?" Bassam asked.
"She's depressed. ... She won't follow me. I give her food, she doesn't eat it."
"So you're upset because your cat is depressed?"
"Bassam," the woman said, "she's traumatized!"
Bassam said nothing. But in his mind, he screamed.
"Traumatized! Don't use such a word in front of an Iraqi. Know your audience."
Indeed, many aspects of the American relationship with pets the spoiling, the anthropomorphizing set him off. Bassam says he doesn't mind pets, and that people in Iraq do keep them. But in America, he has often felt that people value cats and dogs more than humans, and though there's perhaps no direct line from this value system to what's happening in Iraq and plenty of hobbies that people prioritize disproportionately, everywhere it frustrates him. When he saw a report on ABC about an American program to rescue stray Iraqi dogs, he was furious.
"I'd rather think about an Iraqi refugee," he says.
There were other things that drove him nuts. One hot summer day, everyone around him complained, and he couldn't help but think that in Baghdad where, since the war, people often lack electricity and running water temperatures hit 120. Shouldn't Americans think about these things? And if they couldn't empathize with Iraqis, what about with American troops living in those conditions?
On his good days, in his calmer moments, he understands that this is the way life works. He knows people can get used to anything, and once they do, they go about their day-to-day lives.
"Some Americans don't care because their lives are not affected by [the circumstances in Iraq]," he says. "They have their jobs, their families, their kids going to school. So why care? They think: 'It's not my fault, it's Bush's fault.' And Americans don't really have time to follow all the news. People work day and night."
This reality somewhat absolved his new neighbors for their disconnect, he thought. But it was also one of the most depressing things about American life for him to come to terms with. Because Bassam does not believe America should pull its troops immediately out of Iraq. He doesn't even believe that the invasion necessarily had to be a bad thing for Iraqis. He does believe that Americans and Iraqis will need to work together to build a better Iraq, and if that's going to happen, Americans will need to pressure their leaders to make better decisions, and offer more than blithe assurances that things are getting better. And he tells himself as he told me when explaining why he was talking to me, and writing a memoir, and, a couple of weeks ago, going on Radio Times that he has a role in this process, a purpose in this country. "It's my duty to keep telling them, to make them aware of the reality," he says. But if people will ultimately return to their own concerns, well, perhaps he's purposeless.
"Americans don't really care about Iraqis anymore," he concludes in his darker moments. "I'm doing my part of educating people about the war, but a solution requires the other side, as well."
What Bassam sees, then, when he looks at America, are his own prospects for helping his country dimming. At those times, he can't attribute his purpose here to anything grander than basic survival.
"Why be here?" Bassam says. "[Because] this is the only shelter I have now."
About three weeks ago, on May 7, Bassam was scheduled to read an excerpt from his thesis project on St. Joe's campus. After meeting a friend on 54th Street, near City Line Avenue, he showed up wearing a striped shirt and khakis, and had about him the satisfied air of a man completing something.
The event, a culminating moment for the Writing Studies program, was held in a basement classroom of one of the campus buildings. It was an unfancy but pleasant affair, and people were in good spirits, Bassam no exception: Upon entering, he hugged, it seemed, everyone there, reserving his most enthusiastic greeting for Jenny Spinner, whom he sat down next to and happily chatted up.
Things got under way. After a brief introduction by the program's Director (who spoke of how far some students had traveled to attend), the first student presented, reading a thoughtful essay about a vacation. Bassam made notes on his papers.
He went second. Taking the podium, he explained that his memoir was about "place, identity, change and tradition." The title, he said, was "Ashes on a Plate" a reference to how Saddam said he would hand Baghdad to the Americans. Then he started reading. The opening scene, it turns out, is the car ride he took with Munis the night before the U.S. invaded Baghdad. He recalls it in deep detail: how the cool air "tickled" his face through the passenger window; the pure darkness of the city. He makes much of the fact that Munis was a Sunni, and how neither of them cared about this distinction. And he foreshadows the inevitable turn of events by mourning a place that, in the text, is still alive.
"My Baghdad, my home," he read. "The only place I had known in my 23 years of life."
The classroom was silent not just respectful, one could tell, but riveted. And Bassam looked confident and purposeful. It was an affecting scene, the kind where over-reaching optimism is born; indeed it seemed in that room that maybe the defeatism of Bassam's darker moments his fear that Americans are unreachable was unwarranted. Yes, he has periods of discouragement, when we seem totally disconnected from the war. But that very lack of connection might stem from the fact that we rarely come in contact with people like him, rarely see him speak (which he now does occasionally), rarely read books he's written. That evening at St. Joe's, for instance: It was a beautiful night, an idyllic campus, a celebratory event. You never would have known there was a war on. But then Bassam started reading.