The night a disheveled Saddam Hussein faced American interrogators in his former palace, a liquor-store owner from Detroit named Adnan translated every word.
“And I told him, ‘You know what, one day, before, these palaces, they were yours. Now you are a visitor with us,’” Adnan said.
Adnan, who asked that his last name not be used out of concern for his family, smiled as he showed me a two-year old photograph in an Arabic newspaper. In the photo, he is escorting a handcuffed Saddam Hussein into custody.
Born in Baghdad in 1957, Adnan fled to the United States in 1980 to escape the Iran/Iraq war. He never imagined that twenty-three years later he would sit face-to-face with the handcuffed dictator.
“And Saddam asked me, he say, ‘When did you leave Baghdad?’ I said, ‘About twenty-two years old.’ He said, ‘You claim you are Iraqi. You are not Iraqi.’ I said, ‘Because of you [...], I’m not!’” Adnan angrily put out his cigarette as he recalled the moment.
Adnan is one of a unique group of individuals whose stories few Americans know -- the Iraqi-American translators. They are men and women between two worlds. They are Americanized after years of U.S. citizenship, but drawn to their homeland. They are civilians often in the thick of military action. Their reasons for joining U.S. forces are straightforward.
“The generation of my oldest brother disappeared basically,” said Talib Al-Shuwaily, a translator originally from Nasiriyah, when describing his childhood in Iraq during the 1980’s.
Al-Shuwaily fled his hometown of Nasiriyah after the brutal 1991 crackdown in the south. The thought of returning to Iraq as a linguist initially frightened him.
“It was a scary feeling because that’s the country I escaped from. Do I really want to go back there? And this could be the biggest war. It’s the whole me and the whole you. What do you call it? An all out war. It at first scared me. Then I said, ‘I have to do it.’”
Military contractors first sent Al-Shuwaily to Qatar to translate documents. His wife gave birth to their son Sayeed while he was away. Then he transferred to Basra, Iraq.
“My wife said, ‘Call me all the time. Send me an e-mail. Then I’ll understand and I’m not going to worry about you as much.’ Now of course if we got hit, I wouldn’t tell her that we got hit last night. I never told her until I got back.”
Like American soldiers, many translators speak of the separation from their families as the toughest part of their job.
“That was the hardest thing for me since I left three kids and a wife,” said Johnny “Sargon” Jacob, an Assyrian-American linguist who recently returned from a two-year stint in Iraq.
Assyrians were the first inhabitants of Iraq. Many still speak their ancient language of Aramaic. “Sargon” is an old Assyrian king.
Fluent in Aramaic, Arabic and English, Jacob rode into Baghdad with U.S. forces the day Baghdad fell. The hulky former boxer cried in the Humvee.
“My friend, he was a major sitting next to me in the Humvee, he said ‘Jacob, why are you crying? Are you scared?’ I said, ‘No sir, I’m not scared. I’m so happy.’”
He returned to his childhood home in Al Doura south of Baghdad and organized a gift collection on the American base for the old neighborhood.
“Military personnel managed to collect gifts of clothes, medicines, toys, things, candies, food. You name it, anything that was available. You know, these beautiful, wonderful soldiers brought it to me and collected it in boxes so that I could take it to the Iraqi needy people.”
Jacob visited the Christian church of his childhood, St. George’s. He sadly showed me two photographs. In one, Iraqi parishioners happily gather in the courtyard next to the church after Mass in 2003. The next photograph taken one year later shows the bombed away site where the church once stood.
“[Suicide bombers] drove a car into the side of the church and they completely destroyed it.”
Jacob fears “dark days” for the future of his Assyrian people as Islamic radicals continue to target Iraqi Christians, but he remains steadfast in his belief that U.S. forces were right to enter Iraq in order to remove Saddam Hussein.
Al-Shuwaily and Adnan agree. Adnan described the effects of Saddam’s regime on the people.
“If you see someone in his forties, you think he [is] in his seventies. The way life was, [there was] too much depression. Under Saddam’s regime, they don’t know when they’re going to be dead. They have no freedom. Like birds released from their cage.”